WSJ Article "How to Crash Restricted Shopping Sites"


Senior Member
Some may find this article interesting, as it provides some advise on clothes shopping. I don't see much value from the examples provided, i.e. supposed deal for Joseph Abboud shirts at $40 is not good value at all.

"The recession has not been kind to fashion retailers, many of which have seen their sales plummet. But there's one retail corner that has boomed over the past few years: members-only Web sites that offer huge discounts on all kinds of designer goods to those quick with their credit card.

The sites offer members deeply discounted merchandise for a limited amount of time, typically 36 hours. For example, a certain designer's luxury handbags that retail for $400 might be offered for $100, but are typically available for only a few days at what the sites call a "boutique" or "event." Once the sale ends, members are offered a new series of deeply discounted products from a specific designer or company, such as a line of Alexander Wang footwear.

Gilt, the first of the members-only Web sites in the U.S., started in 2007 and now has more than two million members. A number of competitors have since emerged, including Rue La La, HauteLook and Ideeli. Each site sells clothing for men, women and kids, accessories such as watches and jewelry, shoes, home goods and even beauty products. More recently, Daily Candy Inc.'s Swirl entered the market, and retailer Saks Inc. is developing its own version.

We tested four leading members-only sites, ordering one item from each and then trying to return it. As members, we scored discounts of up to 70% off the retail price. But impulse shoppers should beware: Except in cases of damaged merchandise, the sites don't offer cash refunds. Instead, we could get only store credit for apparel, while other items were not returnable. Additionally, at many sites, returns need to be made within a few days of receipt. And the entire process can be very slow: It can take two weeks or more for items to arrive.

As we found out, members-only doesn't mean exclusive. Though the sites claim to restrict membership to those invited by current members, we found ways to circumvent that requirement. After providing an email and password to HauteLook Inc.'s and Ideeli Inc.'s sites, we were allowed to browse and buy right away. We were put on a waiting list for Gilt, which is owned by New York-based Gilt Groupe Inc., and received our invitation link the next day. We never received an invitation to Boston-based Rue La La, which is owned by GSI Commerce Inc., but after a quick Google search for "Rue La La membership" we found a link that granted us access. (A Rue La La spokeswoman says new members typically join by invitation, and that other promotions are "limited in time and scope.")

Browsing each site was addictive because inventory changes quickly. Each one lists current sales as well as previews of upcoming sales. After signing up we also received daily email alerts from each provider about the newest sales, and it was tempting to log on to the sites to see the merchandise before it was gone. Items like designer sunglasses and handbags can disappear within minutes.

From Gilt, we bought a shirt with sleeve embellishments by Elizabeth and James that cost $108 plus $10 shipping. It retails for $265, according to the site. Many of the items we browsed were from name designers like Diane von Furstenberg or Calvin Klein. Items typically cost more than $100, and with only store credit for returns, it was tough to commit. "We work directly with designers, so we are very respectful and don't put prices so far down that it would embarrass them," says a spokeswoman.

It took seven days for our order to arrive via UPS Ground. (Many of the other items we looked at would have taken a month to arrive because they are shipped from the designer.) Our purchase arrived on a hanger and wrapped in plastic and tissue paper. Returning it was simple: We printed a return tag from our account and were credited the money back, minus shipping costs.

At, we purchased a Joseph Abboud men's dress shirt for $39 plus tax and a $9.95 shipping fee; the shirt typically retails for $89.50, according the site. We felt more pressure on this site because timers show when each sale ends and when products are almost sold out. Our item arrived in its original plastic packaging when we received it 10 days later, with an envelope containing our receipt and a return-shipping label.

From New York-based Ideeli Inc.'s site, we ordered a Heys USA laptop backpack for $17 plus tax and $10 shipping; according to the site, the bag retails for $30. The item was not returnable; only clothing and shoes are returnable for store credit, says CEO Paul Hurley. Shopping events included Donna Karan bedding and Kate Spade handbags. We later received many emails from the site touting promotions, which we found annoying. (Mr. Hurley says members can switch off email notification settings.) Our item arrived within seven days of ordering.

At Los Angeles-based HauteLook Inc.'s site, we bought a Chaiken trench coat for $175 plus tax and $7.95 shipping—saving $411 over retail, according to the site. We were confused about the return policy and didn't realize that "item is returnable" meant we would get credit, not cash. (A spokeswoman says members know the policy, and that full details are available elsewhere on the site and are enclosed with purchase.)

The coat arrived 16 days later in plastic and tissue, but we noticed pen marks on the sleeve. After contacting a HauteLook representative, we returned it for a full cash refund.

Overall, we found the sites fun to browse but ultimately frustrating. We were tempted by items that we never thought we needed (a shaggy new-wool rug at 50% off, for example), though we were disappointed that it could take up to a month to receive our impulse buys. Much of the best stuff was listed as sold out when we checked the sites. To get the best deals, we would have had to take a break from our workday and log on exactly at the sale's opening time, typically mid-morning, eastern time."
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