If you're in the mood for something fabulous and willing to pay a little bit for it (but way less than you would full price), then Neiman Marcus has just the thing for you: How about a hand-painted Vera Wang dress? At 65% off you might be thinking already that's a huge bargain, but when the price tag is $752 versus $2,150, and the dollar value of the savings is $1,398, it sounds even more enticing.
This is the premise behind the luxury retailer's new online store, LastCall.com, which enters an increasingly crowded market for discount luxury goods. Many of these usually exclusive retailers have found their devotees in the masses online, with a dwindling number of physical retail locations.
Neiman's wants to own what it refers to as the "off-price" market by doubling down on its own merchandise and audience — appearing haute and exclusive on the one hand, and accessible and affordable on the other. One feature of the site, Fashion Dash, will attempt to mirror the excitement of sample sales, where those in-the-know shoppers (i.e., those that have signed up for email alerts) will get tipped off to limited, timed sales.
Since the recession started, even hard-core fashionistas have been searching for bargains, and their usual haunts have responded by expanding stores at outlet malls, special sales and other retail outlets devoted to sale merchandise. Among the six top brands at the top of the Luxury Institute's Website Effectiveness Index, most are now finding it is bigger business to sell discounted merchandise than it is to maintain flagship stores. Here's what status looks like today:
- Bloomingdale's — The 149-year-old chain is turning 2010 into the year of the outlet, with four new locations opening this year in New Jersey, Virginia and Florida, with three to five more opening in 2011. This comes on the heels of a few years of expansion of traditional department stores, spearheaded by owner Macy's, as they struggled to combat the flagging economy. The store's online sale section has 30% off on a wide selection of items.
- Saks — The huge flagship in Manhattan notwithstanding, the retailer does a lot more business at Saks Off Fifth, which has its own website. The company's most recent headlines involve designer Alexander McQueen and the Hell's Angels and a case of possible copyright infringement, so you can tell that the mix of high-and-low is alive and well.
- Nordstrom — After hitting the skids for the last few years, this year the retailer is on an upswing, with September's sales rising 7.5%. It was one of the bright spots on the retail horizon, thanks in no small part to Nordstrom Rack stores, which opened several new locations in the last few weeks. The store's main website has no sale section, but there is a separate section for Nordstrom Rack, which also offers free shipping for orders over $200.
- Barneys — Although it has yet to jump fully into the off-price market, Barneys, which has 21 retail locations across the country, does have highly anticipated Biannual Warehouse Sales, which have become like the mother of all sample sales. There is an active sale section on its website, where you can buy things like men's floral socks for $19 a pair, and special 25th anniversary items available this year.
- Brooks Brothers — The oldest men's clothing chain in America has long been a denizen of outlet malls (and a punchline in the new movie The Social Network), and even has a catchy name for its online bargain site, "Brooks Buys." Its latest foray isn't into discount retail outlets, but into home furnishings. But change may be coming soon, as the company has been closing locations, which numbered 210 in the United States, due to poor sales.
- Neiman Marcus — The retailer, which also owns Bergdorf-Goodman, has been in the discount game for a while before the LastCall.com concept came into play this month. Its website went live in 1999, which largely supplanted the company's well-known catalog business, and now hosts not only a sale section, but clearance and special offers like the Pink Sale and Fall Sale Book (and free shipping). There are also 26 Neiman Marcus LastCall Clearance Centers at outlet malls.
These six top brands aren't the only places to get couture at a bargain these days. Notably, Ann Taylor, at the top of national high-end chains, has Loft, Factory and Outlet stores, for a myriad of ways for shoppers to get discounts on designer duds, but only Loft has its own web destination, otherwise shoppers end up at the Sale section on the main site.
There are also web-only retailers like Bluefly.com, which is pushing the envelope with a viral video series, a new Facebook page for cashmere items, and fall TV ads on Bravo containing scannable bar codes for discounts (they work in conjunction with smartphones). There are "exclusive" sample sale sites like Gilt.com which you have to join in order to access deals up to 70% off. And if you're in the mood to rent rather than own, there's always sites like rentherunway.com, which is now offering handbags along with its selection of couture available for loan, and bagborroworsteal.com.
Beth Pinsker is dealnews' Editorial Director. She was most recently the Editor of WalletPop.com, and has been a life-long bargain hunter. Follow her on Twitter — @bethpinsker. You can also sign up for an email alert for all dealnews features.
Photo credit: Milika Sekulic via Flickr