Shoppers walk past a Prada store at Hong Kong's shopping Tsim Sha Tsui district
I love fashion just as much as the next person, but I’m usually too intimidated to walk into a high-end store like Prada or Gucci for fear that I’ll be recognized for what I really am — a bargain shopper. I mean, how many of us could afford $700 pumps or a $1,500 handbag? My natural inclination in these haute houses is to gawk at the price tags, not ask the saleswoman if those shoes come in a size 7.
And while I’m not someone who would normally ever be shy to ask for a discount, doing so at an upscale design house feels kind of inappropriate.
But I’ve recently learned that this, as with so many of our notions surrounding money, is irrational — and counterproductive. Even in the absence of a sale, you can negotiate at Prada and its fellow designer shops, according to the experience and expertise of Mark Ellwood, author of the recent book “Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World.”
“You may be surprised at how fantastic the service really is at these stores,” says Ellwood. “For every one that treats you rudely there are 10 that treat you like an emperor.”
In fact, in his book, he describes a friend who managed to score 20% off on a pair of Prada loafers. After trying on multiple pairs the friend confessed that while he loved them, they were just simply out of his price range. “He asked, ‘Hey, can I get a discount if I pay in cash?’” Ellwood says. “He was expecting her to laugh but instead she said, ‘Yes, I can give you 20% off.’”
I know what you’re thinking. A 20% discount at a store like Prada still means paying hundreds and hardly qualifies as a steal. And to be clear, the following is not meant to encourage impulsive shopping or promote living beyond one’s means.
But if you’ve had your sights set on a particular luxury item and have dutifully saved up to afford it, why pay full price if there’s a way around it? The key is to arrive prepared and practice the following few tricks, all before the Big Ask.
Make new friends
The key to successful discount negotiation at a high-end store is to make friends with a sales associate. And as with any worthwhile relationship, it takes some time to cultivate.
Approach a sales rep who looks receptive, and strike up a chat that gets them interested in working on your behalf. Be kind and let them know you love the store, plan to shop there a lot (even if it’s not entirely true) and that you’d like to exclusively get their help. Because many work on commission this will be music to their ears and could eventually earn you a “charm” discount. “That conversation is showing loyalty,” which is “open sesame of discounts,” says Ellwood.
Winning a discount may not happen right away. If, after an hour trying on shoes, you’re not feeling optimistic, ask for the sales rep’s card and come back in a few days or email soon after to check in. You can write, “I’d love to come back in…and try on those shoes again. Are there any promotions? Any discounts yet?”
Ask for the inside scoop
Investing time with the sales rep can also make you privy to the store’s secrets, specifically its pre-sale period reserved for VIP customers. This, as Ellwood describes, is a weeklong “phantom” sale of up to 40% storewide that happens at almost all major designer stores periodically, but goes unbeknownst to the average shopper. A week after the pre-sale period, stores will typically open up the deals to the general public, but by then the best items in your fit and size may be gone.
Note that every major designer brand, except Louis Vuitton, has sales, so you can try to negotiate with them all. “Walk into Michael Kors and ask when the pre-sale season starts…. and if could you have pre-sale price now,” Ellwood says. “You are never going to get a better deal on proper designer merchandise than at the pre-sale. That’s the holy grail.”
And if you feel uneasy about entering the sometimes stuffy environment of high-end designer shops, just remember Ellwood’s tip: “Everyone who works there is just a person like you or me and they couldn't afford the clothes there if they didn't work there.”
Suggest a sale match at department stores
Sometimes your best bet is to purchase designer goods at a department store like Nordstrom, where they will price match with competitors like Saks, Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s. Plus, Nordstrom has great customer service and asking for a discount there feels like business as usual. Case in point, I happened to be at a Nordstrom browsing one afternoon when my mother texted me to say that Saks was offering 25% off handbags. I found the sale on Saks.com on my phone, showed it to the sales rep and she gladly offered me the same discount on all their designer bags. I went home a very happy customer with two in-season handbags from Marc Jacobs and Kate Spade.
And a quick savings tip for Bloomingdale’s fans: The department store offers 10% off at its New York City, Miami, Chicago and San Francisco stores for "out-of-towners.”
Check out the outlets
Gucci, Diane von Furstenberg, Prada and other designer brands, as well as upscale department stores like Neiman Marcus and Saks maintain outlets all over the country. Just know that a majority of their inventory — about 60% to 70% — is “outlet only” merchandise that was made specifically for the bargain shopper and typically constructed with lower-grade materials. “A $200 bag at the outlet was not originally $1,000. It’s a cheaper product,” Ellwood says.
But with a keen eye and befriending the sales associates there, you could get lucky and snag last season’s runway jacket for a fraction of the price.
“If I were going to a designer brand outlet, I would go into a department store that stocks that brand first and snap a picture of the label on the item I wanted,” says Ellwood. Outlet-only items are typically distinguished by a different label. Then, head over to the outlet store to compare. “If there’s any variation, assume that product is an off-price product,” he says. But around a third of the time, it’s an original item and you’ve got a potential deal on your hands.
The salespeople there can also be great allies who can let you know when authentic merchandise from the primary store arrives. “A friend of mine’s mother got lucky when her sales associate at Neiman Marcus Last Call called and said they just got a shipment of Chanel bags,” says Ellwood.
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