Cents and Sensibility

The Perils of Flash Sales

I bought these rain boots from ideeli the other day. Never mind that it had been 70 degrees and sunny for the past three weeks in Los Angeles. I had been patiently waiting for a good pair at a good price, and I knew that eventually winter would exact its vengeance on our fair city. There would be rain and probably a “storm watch” of some sort once we hit 2” of rainfall – and I would be ready to face it all with style.

If you aren’t familiar with flash sale websites like ideeli, RueLaLa, Hautelook or Beyond the Rack, the concept is simple. These sites sell extremely limited quantities of high-end products at steep discounts (my boots were 70% off the original price) for two to three days or until quantities sell out. Navigated properly, these websites can be the ultimate bargain hunting ground. But the psychology behind flash sales ensures that these businesses succeed despite such low prices. And if you’re not careful, you may end up spending far more than you anticipated.

  • Time Pressure– I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “act now while supplies last”. It’s a marketing technique that has mobilized consumers to buy everything from Furbies to McRibs due to a false sense of urgency. And because flash sale products often sell out, the sense of immediacy is even higher.When I first starting shopping on these sites, I’d purchase quickly to avoid missing out on a bargain only to find that there were new shoes, new dresses and new bath towels offered shortly thereafter that were as good as the ones I had just ordered. And while you can only purchase so many bath towels, you can never have too many dresses and shoes, right? Right. So there was ample opportunity to make this same mistake again.

    Remember – shopping is not a competitive sport (though it should be, because I’d be really good at it). Approach these sites the way you would approach any other website or storefront. Unsure about a product? Give it a few hours or a day if you need it. If everyone else beats you to the bargain, keep in mind that inventory is updated daily. There are myriad options of whatever you need and you will inevitably find something you like.

  • Perceived Exclusivity– When these sites first started, they were invitation only. Currently, anyone can sign up for an account, but you still can’t view the sales until you do so. A few sites even offer priority access for an annual fee, ensuring that you never miss an opportunity.With such secretive, special sales, you’d think the prices would be one-of-a-kind.In actuality, huge markdowns are not exclusive to flash sales. Comparable discounts are often found on Overstock.com, Amazon.com, Bluefly.com and many others. Their prices last far longer than 48 hours, and sometimes you can catch a sale or shipping deal on top of their already low prices. I’ve found this to be especially true with household items, books, movies and jewelry. Before you buy, do a quick internet search and see what other options are available.
  • Emphasizing the Discount– Flash sales like to highlight the original cost of their products and how much money you save through your purchase. I know numbers don’t lie, but they can be effectively misleading.Let’s say you’ve budgeted $75 for new jeans. You purchase a pair that was $250 at regular price on sale at Hautelook for a whopping 65% off. When you finish ordering, Hautelook informs you – in bold letters, no less – that you just saved $163! What a steal! Except that you paid almost $100 after tax and shipping, meaning you went over your budget by $25 (about 33%). Still feel like a smart shopper?

    Obviously, saving a few hundred dollars is a wonderful thing. But the reality is your bank account does not award you brownie points for the original retail value. If something is out of your budget, regardless of how large the discount, you shouldn’t purchase it. You might miss out on the short-term rush from saving 65%, but you will feel even better when you get your statement at the end of the month and see that you lived within your means.

I’m an avid fan of these sites. Aside from my adorable rain boots, I’ve purchased underwear, outerwear and everything in between at amazing prices. I don’t think these companies are out to get you, but the nature of their business model makes it very easy to go overboard. Just beware the pitfalls. By shopping wisely, you’ll secure some great finds and still have enough money in your pocket to be ready for a rainy day. I know I am!

Image via Equestriancollections.com

  • http://www.facebook.com/cynthiapalumbo Cindie Palumbo

    I love flash sales! I don’t buy from them too often (luckily I’m usually unable to check the sites right as things go on sale, so by the time I can access it the things I like are already sold out), but I have a rule that if I buy anything from them, I can’t go back on the site for at least a week. Usually that means re-routing the daily emails right into my “read” pile so I don’t even see them in my inbox!

  • http://www.facebook.com/spiiiiice Rachael Graham

    I hear ya, I’ve gotten such great quality, adorable stuff from the flash sale sites. Love it! I always check bluefly, last call neiman marcus, et al. before ordering something. And after you’ve checked enough of these flash sales you realize that even if it’s 50% off right now, if you wait like 3 weeks it will pop up again and maybe be like 75% off.

  • http://www.facebook.com/larissa.dinh Larissa Dinh

    I’m an early adopter and am so over these deal sites, I signed up for the major ones and got overloaded with all the emails (in addition to the groupon local deals) – it was stressful to manage all of them, and you end buying things you don’t really need. And often times, I’d find the items for cheaper or about the same price on sites like Bluefly or Amazon – and when you tack on shipping and no returns, it ends up costing you more!!!

    The only one I still subscribe to is MyHabit and Gilt City, MyHabit (owned by Amazon) has the best selection, prices, customer service and best of all no tax, free shippping/returns – love them! Here’s my roundup of the best and worst flash sale sites, most of which I’ve tried out: http://www.skinnyscoop.com/list/larissa/best-daily-deal-sites-for-busy-moms

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