Once the sole domain of underpaid, overdressed minions of fashion, the sample sale has gone so mainstream, it's practically its own segment of retailing.
And now, two new websites -- the New York-based Gilt Groupe ( www.gilt.com) and the Los Angeles-based HauteLook ( www.hautelook.com) -- are bringing the sample sale to the Internet.
Both sites offer designer-specific sales, one to three times per week. Sales last 48 hours, and members at both sites must register to "attend." (Gilt Groupe requires an invitation from a member, though the company encourages e-mailing the site if a referral is needed.)
"The sample sale is such a phenomenon here," said Alexis Maybank, chief executive and founder of Gilt Groupe. "But it hadn't really been brought to a national audience." Maybank, who worked in business development for AOL, said that the company focuses on brands that are "rarely discounted or hard to get."
Both sites are no frills -- products are displayed on the page in a standard shopping format. Gilt Groupe launched with Zac Posen, which sold out in six hours, according to the company. Of course, it was a different sort of frenzy than you find at a typical sample sale. The competition is faceless. If shoppers are up against anything, it's the clock. Both sites also offer streaming video on the brand.
At Gilt Groupe's recent Allessandro Dell'Acqua sale, we nabbed a ruched, off-the-shoulder black tulle blouse for $228, down from $750. The item arrived overnight (shipping was free), on a Allessandro Dell'Acqua hangar, neatly presented in a box with tissue paper (a far cry from an actual sample sale, where you're more likely to take home your loot balled up in a grocery bag).
True to its West Coast roots, HauteLook offers more contemporary fashions. The site, the brainchild of Adam Bernhard and Carlota Espinosa, launched earlier this month with Development by Erica Davies and most recently with LaRok. Upcoming sales include Rock & Republic and Ya-Ya.
"These are designers you can actually afford," said Espinosa, who was most recently the producer of the Fox network's "Style File" segment.
Among the hottest items at the LaRok sale, which featured discounts of 50% to 65%, was the Moto Chic Puffer -- a shiny, winter puffer jacket marked down from $350 to $122.50. A sequined blazer was $170, down from $340.
At both sites, prices are in line with real-world sample sales. But unlike in the real world, you're likely to find more than a Size 2.