Check it Out: Luxury Shopping Online (Shhh! Keep It a Secret)
When I first started working in Manhattan in the — ahem — late '80s, I received a certain thrill when friends "in the know" would call me about a private sample sale taking place in a warehouse downtown. Who knew what bargains awaited? Who would be there? What kind of cool, one-of-a-kind items would we find? (Who needed Loemann's?)
Well, this concept ultimately reached the web, and the excitement hasn't abated. Over the past few years, quite a few private sales sites have popped up on the internet. The sites — Ruelala.com, Gilt.com, Ideeli.com and HauteLook.com, just to name a few — are online destinations that feature sales on designer clothes and accessories for a limited time.
The sites are exclusive, or by invitation only, meaning members have to be invited by existing members to take part. Some allow visitors to request memberships, but you also can be placed on waiting lists. Members receive reminder emails and text messages when new sales are about to open, which drive visitors to the boutiques before items are sold out. Shopping, as a result, becomes a competitive, daily activity.
Some sites only offer designer women's clothing. Others offer men's, women's and children's fashions. Some offer clothing, accessories and housewares. Ruelala.com also has started selling wine, spa services and â€¨travel packages.
Each site has a different approach to the sales. For Ruelala.com, members can peruse premier brand, private sale boutiques, each open for just two days. New boutiques open each day at 11 a.m. (EST) and feature merchandise at 50 percent to 80 percent below retail. Gilt.com offers similar markdowns, but sales last 36 hours and feature hand-selected styles from one designer.
The sites also offer specials to their members. Ruelala.com members, for example, receive a $10 Rue La La credit when each new friend places a first order. Rue La La also launched an iPhone app to make it easier for members to make purchases while on the move.
But don't look for them on search engines. These sites apparently shield themselves from spiders to add to their exclusivity. What's more, affluent brands aren't interested in working with these sites if the heavily discounted merchandise they hope to sell — because it didn't sell elsewhere — pops up in response to online searches for their brands. Too tacky.
Unique visits to these sites are growing, according to several published reports. One reported that Gilt.com, which was launched in 2007 by two Harvard Business School graduates, has more than 1.4 million members and expects revenue of $400 million next year.
The real draw appears to be the idea that members are "in the know."
"Websites like Rue La La and Gilt have proven to be popular because they offer steep discounts on luxury products, which have the perception of rarely being on sale," observes Peter Cobb, co-founder and senior vice president of marketing of eBags, who brought the sites to my attention. "In the recent challenging economic climate, retail as usual will not work. These business models have captured the attention of women shoppers who still love to shop but need to feel they are getting a steal."
Speaking of which, I have to run and check out one of the sites — a sale is about to end!