Whether you're buying online or in person, these expert tips will help you spend smarter.

Woman shopping sample sale illo
Credit: Ian Dingman

1. Prices aren’t always rock-bottom. Sample sales, which you can find on websites (like Gilt.com and Ruelala.com) or in showrooms, warehouses, and stores, are famous for offering steals on top-notch merch. But be wary: Many designers use the sales to unload extra inventory at far-from-bargain prices. True samples—prototypes that come from the manufacturer—should cost no more than 50 percent of the suggested retail price, says Cheryl Holland Bridges, director of the Center for Retailing Studies at Texas A&M University, in College Station. Before you buy, make sure you’re getting a real deal by checking the sale price against a Web discounter, like bluefly.com, or the designer’s own website.

2. Don’t trust sizes. The number printed on the garment may not be accurate, says Rachel Weingarten, a New York City-based stylist. Why? Real samples have been fit to a specific model. “One dress might be nipped at the waist; another might be cut extra-straight,” she says. If you’re at a sale, try on the item. If alterations will be required, factor that into the overall price. Tailoring can run from $10 (shortening a hem) to about $50 (letting out blazer seams).

3. In the store, look for imperfections. That loose button or stubborn zipper could land you a deeper discount. But don’t ask for a specific markdown, says Weingarten: “You might think 10 percent off is a good deal, but the saleswoman might be willing to offer a bigger reduction.” Instead ask, “Can you help me out on the price?” If she doesn’t bite, ask if another item, like a small accessory, could be included in the price.

4. On the Web, keep a cool head. “Flash sales” actually last 24 to 72 hours. So resist all those messages to “buy now!” “The more urgent it seems, the more likely you are to make a spur-of-the-moment decision,” says Mimi Irwin, a retail consultant in New York City. “Websites use this type of language to drive sales.” Before purchasing, ask yourself: Why am I getting this? How will I pay for this? How will I feel afterward? “If you don’t have good answers,” says Irwin, “you could be shopping for the adrenaline high alone.”

5. Be strategic about timing. Often you can save an additional 10 to 20 percent if you shop during the final hours of an in-store sample sale. Online you’ll find the best savings at sales labeled “final” or “blowout,” which are held at various times throughout the year and are separate from regular daily sales. Ruelala.com has a sale like this every quarter; Ideeli.com, every six to eight weeks; Hautelook.com, every Saturday.