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Melissa Bernais says flash sales let her experiment with brands that aren’t available near her home in Waterloo, Ont.

jennifer roberts The Globe and Mail

Melissa Bernais, a senior user-experience designer who lives in Waterloo, Ont., spends about 10 minutes every day scouring flash-sale sites. "I believe in buying investment pieces that will last forever," she says. "With flash-sale sites, you can do more with what you have. Instead of budgeting and buying one or two pieces a year, you're looking at four or five."

"Flash sales" offer steep discounts for a limited time to members only on up-and-coming or designer labels.

Anyone can sign up to flash-sale sites for free. (Montreal-based The Volts, a prêt-à-porter private-sale site, is free but invite-only.) After registering, members get daily e-mails announcing sales. Depending on the site, sales start between 11 a.m. and noon E.T. and last from two days to a week. Items may be discounted by 70 per cent or more and are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

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Once you "reserve" an item, you have between 10 and 20 minutes to seal the deal by checking out with a credit card. Waver too long and it vanishes from your virtual shopping cart. Hot items can disappear in the snap of a purse: U.S.-based Gilt Groupe's fastest sellout was a Volkswagen Jetta, purchased in mere seconds for $5,995, discounted from $23,495.

Flash sales are a type of shopping that is on the bubble. Even though the trend first caught on in Europe in 2001, Montreal-based Beyond the Rack (BTR) was the only site of its kind in Canada when it launched in 2009. Just two weeks ago, it announced that it secured $36-million in investment to fund expansion. With more than five million members in Canada and the United States, BTR was also named the 2010 fastest growing e-tailer in North America by Internet Retailer.

But as fast as the company is growing, so is its competition. In the past year, a slew of homegrown start-ups have sprung up on the virtual scene – a boon for consumers.

"When these sites emerged they were perceived as being a flash in the pan," says Maureen Atkinson, a Toronto-based senior partner at retail consulting company J. C. Williams Group. "But the number of them seems to have grown exponentially."

Today there are at least seven Canadian-owned and -operated flash-sale sites, including Toronto-based Peacock Parade and Montreal's The Volts. Gilt Groupe, the largest American player – offering more than twice as many brands as BTR –just expanded into Canada with its online site, Gilt.com.

With so many flash-sale sites, shoppers can be choosier.

Buying about one item every two to three months, Ms. Bernais experiments with brands that aren't available in her area. "I'd rather spend, say, $70 on a pair of Alice & Olivia pants from a couple of seasons ago than the same amount on a pair currently being sold by Banana Republic," she says. "Better quality and a more interesting cut and material for the same price. And knowing you're not going to see the same piece on other people walking down the street. There's no downside to that."

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Most sites have moved beyond selling last-season's stock and are wooing customers with unique merchandise or services. For instance, Peacock Parade recently offered an "off the runway" program that gave members first dibs on clothing from local designers, weeks before any other retailer.

Some sites feature industry news, Q&As with models or tips from celebrities on their blogs. Gilt Groupe, for example, recently snagged renowned food writer Ruth Reichl, who will contribute a regular column. Still other sites are simply offering more variety, selling everything from cars to couches.

Rebecca Fernando, a veterinary-medicine student at the University of Montreal, who joined BTR just to score designer labels, ended up furnishing most of her apartment with home-decor items she bought on flash-sale sites. "I went a little crazy in the housewares department," says Ms. Fernando, whose purchases included a Langostina eight-piece cookware set for $139.99, down from $399.99.

No doubt, it can be easy to get caught up in the excitement of finding that shiny something for half the retail price. Just don't let that ticking clock panic you into a purchase you'll regret.

To prevent buyer's remorse, Ms. Bernais says it helps to keep your lifestyle in the back of your mind, as well as a list of items you're looking for. "You could still be spending hundreds of dollars, but if it's something you've wanted for a while, pull the trigger."

Tips

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To prevent impulse purchases stay up-to-date on upcoming sales so you can limit yourself to scanning only the ones that really interest you. This way you will also have a better chance of getting that Milly print skirt you're craving before it sells out.

Shipping costs can turn a substantial deal into an average-priced hassle, so find out how much, if anything, each site charges. Be aware that some items may not arrive for weeks or months. (So don't order cufflinks a week before your significant other's birthday and hope for the best.)

Hesitant to buy clothes you can't try on? Get familiar with the size charts. And since return policies vary widely, it pays to read the fine print. Also, ask around for a good tailor in your neighbourhood.

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