Sample sales: Not for the faint of heart

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For those who don’t remember Filene’s “Running of the Brides” sale, it was the store’s annual one-day event where brides could shop for their dream dresses at bargain prices. Every year, television footage showed a stampede of eager brides and their entourages flooding the store as the doors opened; inside the tulle flew as gowns were grabbed and brides changed in the aisles.

Visions of the “Running of the Brides” danced through my head the day my future daughter-in-law, Danielle, and her MOH (maid of honor) suggested attending a sample sale at a nearby wedding salon. Newly engaged, this would be Danielle’s first foray into the world of wedding gowns. I thought it could be fun and her mom, Marie, agreed. It could be potential chaos but, we wouldn’t be looking to buy so we wouldn’t be desperate for the deal.

Even so, I contacted the salon for details about the time the doors opened and when to arrive so as not to be standing in an hour-long line. I also asked if the sale would be a “civil” event; I, at least, was not interested doing battle with bridezillas blinded by bling.

The sales associate said in all her experience, the sample sale was always a well-mannered event. Arrival time was strictly up to us. Some years there was a short line when the doors opened and others it was out to the street.

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The Saturday of the event, we arrived at the salon exactly one hour before the doors opened. There was one party in front of us and very slowly brides began to accumulate until the line was into the street.

As I looked down the line, I could see the “game faces” of those young women determined to leave with a dress that day. They left their places in line to peek through the windows and scope out the floor plan and I began to sense competitiveness in the air.

Suddenly I felt the urge to make a game plan and I looked at our little party and said, “Danielle, you and your mom go to the right of the store, Bree and I will go left.”

Then one of the consultants opened the door and announced, “Ladies, the store has been merchandised with sizes 1-10 on the right, 12 and up on the left. There are dressing rooms upstairs and down. Only four dresses per bride each round. Have fun!”

Game change: everyone goes right.

I no sooner reached the first rack when the tsunami of brides hit. I turned around and girls who were behind us in line were already in dressing rooms and gowns were disappearing faster than my eyes could focus!

I grabbed two dresses and went in search of my group. In the sea of women, they were like three deer caught in the headlights, arms empty.

“You have dresses!” they exclaimed.

“Yes! Now take these and get in line for a dressing room! I’ll stay down here and see if I can negotiate for some others that are already in the dressing rooms.”

And so it went. I stood outside dressing rooms, coveting gowns, asking for first refusal on this or that cast off.

How did this happen? We were second in line!

Once I had our four gowns, I waited upstairs until Danielle got a dressing room and as she cast off every dress, I would pass them over to girls waiting in line with only one dress and bling starvation in their eyes.

After Danielle’s four dresses were tried and there were no others on the racks, I commandeered a consultant who was running dresses room to room.

“Excuse me, but we were second in line today and yet people who were at the back of the line are in dressing rooms with dresses we never even saw! I know there are lace dresses in this store because I see them outside all these dressing rooms. We are not leaving until she tries on at least four more dresses in styles she actually likes. Can you please bring us some dresses? We will wait right here.”

The consultant smiled and said she would locate some dresses and from there we went back to waiting in line for a dressing room. In the meantime, no dress passed without me halting its procession to see if we wanted to try it. While we waited, I fluffed trains and offered compliments as girls emerged like princesses from the dressing rooms. (I should have earned commission!)

After trying four or five more gowns, the last of which Danielle liked but not enough to purchase, we all agreed we’d had our fill of the experience and headed for lunch. As we exited the salon, I saw a young woman who had been at the very back of the line that morning. She had had a “game face” on and sure enough, she left with an armful of gown.

Here’s what we learned from the sample sale experience.

1.) Don’t let a sample sale be your first time trying on wedding dresses. It is not a relaxing experience and not fun unless you find just what you want at a steal. It’s business and the store is doing some cleaning out of old stock.

2.) If you do attend a sale, go with a specific style and detailing in mind. Then visit the store, preferably a few days before the sale to see where your styles are likely to be hanging. Even if the store moves inventory around, get a sense of how gowns are merchandised. It’s like running the course of a race prior to the real event. It was clear that many of the girls at the sale we attended had been to the store on previous occasions and knew just where to find what they were looking for.

3.) Bring more than one person with you. Regardless of advertising, you need at least one person to stand in line for the dressing room and two people to pull dresses, then one of those people to negotiate for castoffs from other dressing rooms.

4.) Know your prices. The dress Danielle liked was a sample and cost as much as one of the newer, prettier designs that was not part of the sale and she could not try on unless she made an appointment!

5.) If you are easily overwhelmed, a sample sale is not the place for you to shop for your dream dress. Danielle admits she was so overwhelmed that had I not refused to give up, she would have left without trying on a dress that day.

One month later, we scheduled an hour-and-a-half appointment at another boutique where Danielle had her own consultant who brought in three rounds of dresses based Danielle’s preferences and what suited her tiny frame.

Danielle’s mom got to see her daughter transformed into a bride before her tear-filled eyes and Danielle got a full bridal experience and a new gown that will be altered to fit her perfectly. In the end, she paid only slightly more than she would have for the sample dress which would have required many alterations.

I remember watching the “Running of the Brides” when I was younger and thinking what fun it would be to attend an event like it. While the sample sale was an experience, I wouldn’t be inclined to shop one again.

A bride trying on the dress of her dreams deserves less of a stampede and more of a standing ovation.

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