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Dave McGinn's Mr. Miser

Blowing the lid on secret deals Add to ...

Last Wednesday, more than 300 people lined up inside a convention centre in Toronto with the same air of patient determination you'd find among rocker dudes waiting to score AC/DC tickets.

But they weren't looking to ride the highway to hell. They were there for marked-down Lacoste and Esprit clothing. And whether it meant skipping school or lying to the boss, they were going to get them.

"No one wants to pay retail any more," Michael Berg, president of StyleDemocracy.com, the company that arranged the sale, told me as we watched hordes of people pick over thousands of items laid out on long wooden display tables. Ten minutes into the sale, 355 shoppers were scouring the tables, many of them with two or three bags already filled.

Warehouse and sample sales, different in kind but alike in the massive deals they offer, may require shoppers to go a little extra distance - this is no easy tour around the mall. But as their devotees will attest, they're worth the effort. A woman at one recent sample sale exclaimed to me, "It's literally a dream come true." She was clutching several items to her chest the way a kid holds a favourite teddy bear.

Warehouse sales are usually huge affairs where brands look to unload excess merchandise - Mr. Berg says the sales he arranges will feature anywhere from 20,000 to more than 100,000 pieces of merchandise. Sample sales are much smaller and happen when a sales rep or retailer wants to get rid of clothing samples.

Both, however, share at least one thing in common: They offer the sort of discounts - as much as 60 to 90 per cent - that those in the know will do just about anything to score.

Including lie through their teeth. At a Virginia Johnson sample sale that my wife brought me to a few weeks ago, one woman said she had made up a dentist appointment to get out of work, and another had rescheduled a meeting. "Can't do it today," I overheard her saying on a conference call, all coy-like. "Why? Important stuff, that's why!"

The relatively limited amount of stuff at sample sales can bring out a diehard attitude that encourages subterfuge - even with friends. As a woman at the Virginia Johnson sale said to me, "I didn't tell the girls at work about it because I didn't want them to get the same stuff." And one friend I e-mailed to ask why sample sales are so great actually wrote this back: "I told a friend of mine at work about your e-mail and she said, 'Oh, tell him not to write about it. They won't be a secret any more.'"

There's a certain pleasure, obviously, in feeling like you're getting bargains to which most other people are oblivious. Indeed, it used to be that, if you wanted to find out about a sample sale, you needed a friend in the know or some kind of decoder ring.

Amy Lowry, the Vancouver entrepreneur who runs the website www.ILoveSampleSales.com, which lists sales in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, New York and Los Angeles, says news of sample sales still generally spreads via through word-of-mouth. "It's usually through friends of friends," she says.

But with sites such as Ms. Lowry's and StyleDemocracy.com, it is much easier now to find out when and where the deals are going down. And the recession is stoking the appetite for them. "Certainly, in these economic times, people are looking for value," Mr. Berg says.

Growing in popularity as they may be, warehouse and sample sales are still largely a female phenomenon, Ms. Lowry says. How many guys do you know who have sat on the edge of their seat for days in giddy anticipation of discounted Hermès?

Well, there was Igor Ostrirov, a 27-year-old salesman who bailed out of work on Wednesday to buy a few pairs of Lacoste shoes. "They're $200 in the store and they're $50 here," he said. "Why would I go to the store?"

Still, this is clearly an under-exploited opportunity for guys. And as Ms. Lowry points out, if you're looking for an anniversary present or a birthday gift for your girlfriend or a Mother's Day surprise, samples sales are a great way to go. Not only are you likely to find a nice gift for a huge discount, but once you tell the lady in your life that you went to a sample sale for her, you are going to get some big love. Big, big love.

Just be ready to be thrown into a shopping-spree frenzy. Don't knock anyone over to get to what you want, but seriously, have your game face on.

One sample-sale regular offered this advice: "Be polite but aggressive. If you see something you like, pick it up. If you don't, it won't be there when you go back for it."

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