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Flash Sale Sites, Good Deals or Hype?

The Pros and Cons of Shopping at Online Flash Sale Stores



Flash Sale Shopping Sites - 6 Questions to Ask

Getty/James Darell

Flash Sale Websites - Know the Return Policy

Getty/Girl Ray

What Are Flash Sale Stores?
First appearing online in 2007, online flash-sale stores, also called sample sale websites, were a small niche of invitation-only online stores for shoppers wanting to buy luxury fashion merchandise at deep-discounted prices. The popularity of the flash-sale model peaked and inventory levels flourished during the bad economic years of 2008-2010. The luxury shoppers were not buying and the retailers needed to turnover a lot of expensive inventory that had accumulated. They dumped massive amounts of inventory on off-price stores, sometimes losing as much as 80 percent off the prices. The creation of the flash-sale stores helped pass on the savings to online shoppers wanting luxury goods, but not the luxury price tags.

In a relatively short time frame, the flash-sale retailing segment showed tremendous growth and branched out into luxury lifestyle stores, adding various product categories including designer clothing for all ages, vintage apparel, gifts, home goods, electronics, travel and more.

As the economy improved and the luxury retailers balanced inventory levels with buyer demands, the flash-sale websites began to struggle for merchandise. Along with limited inventories, customer service issues exploded. Major complaints of bad shipping problems, horrible return policies (as in no returns) and complaints of shoddy merchandise erupted and many consumers lost their trust in this type of online shopping.

Today there is an abundance of flash-sale stores including most of the original companies that opened in the early years. Shoppers can still find popular designer brands like Yves Saint Laurent, Kate Spade, Oscar de la Renta, Prada and Nina Ricci and home brands like Fitz and Floyd, Waterford and All Clad, at discounted prices. Also some of the flash-sale stores sell name-brand computers and electronics. After daily deal websites like Groupon became successful, travel and entertainment deals were added to the mix on some of the flash-sale sites that used to sell exclusively online designer goods.

Private Label Merchandise

To compensate for the lack of popular name-brand designer products, several of the flash-sale luxury lifestyle stores have adapted by including their own private-label merchandise into the inventory mix. There may not be anything wrong with the merchandise, but disclosure that the products are private labels made for the website is usually scarce. Customers can easily be confused as to what is a real designer product and one made to look like one for the flash-sale websites.

Also, sometimes the private-label merchandise is displayed with an expensive original price and then a sale price, when really the item was never sold at the original price.

What consumers might consider as flawed policies, are not unheard of in the retail industry. On the contrary, national, department and big-box stores have been known to avoid disclosing which products are private labels and often advertise the manufacturer suggested retail prices, which the item never sold for, next to sale prices. These unfortunate trends were quickly adopted by many of the sale-flash stores.

What's the Big Attraction?

Shopping at flash-sale stores can be a blast and you can find amazing deals. They sell an average of five to 20 items within a displayed limited amount of time. The amount of available product is usually quite limited. The sales are advertised as "exclusive" and for "members only" and the very best items at the best prices sell out quickly, with the hottest deals selling out before the time for the sale has run out. This creates a feeling of urgency among some shoppers to get to the site in time to insure that they get a hot deal. It is like winning a bid on eBay when there are a lot of people competing for the same great item. It's fun. It's an adrenaline rush. It's also expensive.

Buyer's Remorse

Many times shoppers become so intent on buying a hot designer product at what looks like an unbelievable price, that they hit the "buy" button before they even compare prices, know shipping fees, or policies on returns. This can become a real problem when shopping at flash-sale sites because many times the items being sold are non-refundable. Unfortunately on most of the sites, once shoppers hit the "buy" button, there is no backing out. Generally, purchases cannot be cancelled and if the product fails to meet the customer's expectations or it is somehow flawed, it cannot be returned.

For items that can be returned, shoppers must be diligent in getting the merchandise back within the short time frame that is allowed. Also, some of the flash-sale sites may advertise more liberal return policies, but within the fine print shoppers may only receive a store credit, not a refund.

6 Questions to Ask Before Buying

Shoppers can find wonderful luxury merchandise at great prices at flash-sale sites, but the following questions should be answered before making a purchase.
  • Compare Prices
    How does the price compare to other stores that sell the same or similar items? Checking the retailer or brand’s website may show lower prices. An online search with the designer or brand and style name will quickly help to answer pricing questions.
  • Return Policy
    All of the flash-sale sites list detailed return policies. The information is not kept a secret. However, shoppers have become accustomed to retailers trying to resolve customer complaints and most national stores will make exceptions to return policies. That is not always the case with flash-sale sites.

  • Know the Brand
    Because of the strict return policies, shoppers need to know about a designer or brand before they buy. Does a designer usually fit small or large? What about reviews about a particular fashion line? Were customers happy with their purchase? Was the color what they expected? Did the product hold up?

  • Refund or Store Credit?
    Are returns credited back to customer's credit cards or do they only offer store credits that can be redeemed at that web store? Again, the review of the return policies will always answer this question.

  • How Much is Shipping?
    Flash-sale sites may charge a flat-shipping rate, regardless of the size of the purchase. A pair of earrings could cost $15 or more to ship. Reading the fine print on shipping rates and including that amount into the total cost of the purchase can help shoppers really compare the overall price that they will be paying.

  • Contact Information
    One of the major complaints about some of the flash-sale stores is the lack of communication. Some of the sites offer only email communication. Unless there is a customer service telephone number, it may be best to shop elsewhere. If you are shopping at a flash-sale store for the first time, give the customer service number a call. Is it a constant busy single? Were you placed on hold indefinitely? If so, that particular flash-sale store could be a hassle to deal with if future problems arise with a purchase.


There have been significant changes throughout the years to some of the popular flash-sale stores. Some of the sites have revised overly strict return policies, customer service has been improved to help combat complaints and shipping fees have become more reasonable, but it is still important to have a full understanding of the websites' policies to avoid being stuck with a costly purchase that is useless. By taking the time to not fall into a buyer's frenzy shopping at flash-sites can result in beautiful designer merchandise at a bargain price - some of the time.

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