article

04.29.09

Shopping Showdown at High Noon

The Gilt Groupe, an online sample sale site, has a million members and caused an epic shopping craze—even in a recession. Why are women so obsessed? By Lesley M. Blume.

The Gilt Groupe, an online sample sale site, has a million members and caused an epic shopping craze—even in a recession. Why are women so obsessed?

“You have to have a strategy,” explains a 30-year-old New York City-based businesswoman. “It’s an incredibly aggressive market. Work from the bottom up and work fast, or you’re dead in the water.”

This is not a conversation about trolling the stock market for bargains; rather, this woman is offering advice on scoring items on Gilt Groupe, a members-only discount-designer-clothing Web site. Featuring heavily discounted wares from coveted designers like Oscar de la Renta, Alexander McQueen, and Vera Wang, Gilt Groupe launches a new sale each day at 12 p.m. What follows next can often be compared to a bloodbath as members try to outscramble each other in filling their carts with shoes, dresses, bags, and other treasure.

“It. Is. Ruining. Me,” writes the D.C.-based journalist in an email. “I was going crazy at first, just buying stuff because the discounts were so great, despite whether I really like it or not.”

“I was covering the finance ministers’ meeting in Horsham, as everyone was trying to figure out how to lift the world out of this economic crisis,” says one D.C.-based journalist in her early 30s. “Suddenly I realized that it was midday on the East Coast. Our London correspondent, an employee from the Treasury department, and I all stopped what we were doing and sat in the press tent, clicking madly, trying to order stuff.”

In this realm of discount Web sites, fashion-minded consumers appear to be as ravenous as ever—crazed, even—as huge price cuts make what were once pipe-dream Vogue editorial—only designer brands accessible to the masses for the first time in years.

Gilt Groupe reports that it has just signed its one-millionth member, creating fierce competition to land that pair of size-38 Christian Louboutin patent leather heels. The clientele has become diverse, ranging from socialites looking for a wear-one-time-only gala dress, to office-assistant underlings looking to jolt their wardrobe with a trophy item, to grandmothers in Florida cat fighting it out over Tory Burch sandals.

The upside: It’s all terribly democratic. Anyone with a fast Internet connection can snare a trendy Doo.Ri and Thakoon (a Michelle Obama favorite!) dress for $300 or $400.

The bad news: Gilt Groupe gets expensive and overwhelming very quickly. Some hardcore members say that they have become calamitously hooked on buying the still-not-cheap bargains, even in the trough of a recession. And these women are not of the limitless-funds, ladies-who-lunch variety, either.

“It. Is. Ruining. Me,” writes the D.C.-based journalist in an email. “I was going crazy at first, just buying stuff because the discounts were so great, despite whether I really like it or not.”

It’s hardly a newsflash that sales of all varieties often lead to dubious choices and false economies. As glamour icon (and marathon shopper) Marlene Dietrich once pointed out, “the temptation of getting things ‘cheaper’ is cluttering up our households with unnecessary objects and actually burdens the budget.”

So, it should come as no real surprise, then, that Gilt Groupe’s trigger-happy, sales-psychology-on-crack formula is creating, shall we say, some spiraling habits among its customers. And yet some of the anecdotes of self-described addiction are still staggering.

“You only have five minutes to get what you want and then you’re fucked. If you look at the clock and it’s 12:10, you’re like, forget it, there’s no point in even looking.”

“I am definitely a Gilt Groupe junkie,” says a New York City-based writer, who says she has spent over $10,000—almost a quarter of her annual income—on the site over the last 12 months. “You just get really caught up in it. It’s almost like drunk shopping. I damaged the mouse on my computer from over-clicking on an item, to get it into my cart.”

Gilt Groupe, which launched in 2007, is not alone in turning women into combative shopping zombies; competitor outlets such as Haute Look and Rue La La also have large followings. Yet something about Gilt that has made it the queen bee of sales sites, the zeitgeist face of the phenomenon. Perhaps it has something to do with how easily the name "Gilt Groupe" lends itself to a particular slang; many refer to the site as “Guilt Groupe” and say that they are “gilty” of buying too much clothing from the site; often they call themselves “Gilt Groupies.”

“I prefer to think of our members as ‘shopping athletes,’” says Gilt Groupe co-founder Alexandra Wilkis Wilson. “It’s like a competitive sport, and when you get an item, you feel victorious and there’s a sense of pride associated with it. You’d never get that shopping at an outlet; you just feel like you’re slinking around, looking for treasure.”

Most of the Gilt members consulted for this piece say that they have spent around $5,000 on the site—yet Ms. Wilson says that some shoppers have spent more than $100,000 on Gilt Groupe merchandise.

“It’s the thrill of the hunt,” says Michele Wissot, who covered sample sales as a senior writer at Daily Candy. “It’s that feeling of, ‘Ha ha ha, I got those shoes before that other girl.’ Gilt Groupe is smart to capitalize on our need to do that.”

This survival-of-the-fittest jungle is so intense that many staunch Gilt Groupies say that they will no longer schedule or attend meetings at noon if a particularly toothsome sale is going up.

“You only have five minutes to get what you want and then you’re fucked,” says Hilary Rowland, CEO of talent agency New Faces, who says she drops everything for one of Gilt’s Dolce and Gabbana sales. “If you look at the clock and it’s 12:10, you’re like, forget it, there’s no point in even looking.”

Copycat enterprises will long examine Gilt’s business plan to see what makes it so successful. Ms. Wilson points out that—beyond the adrenaline rush of “winning” an item—the recession has simply made better merchandise and deeper quantities available to the site, and that consumers are in the mood to take advantage of bargains while they last.

“If the economy hadn’t taken the turn that it did, certain luxury brands and designers might not have pursued an offline channel,” she says.

Yet for many, it just comes down to this: Gilt Groupe is ridiculously easy to use. Two clicks (if you’re lucky): one on the product, one on the "purchase" button—and lo! That gratifying, slim Gilt Groupe box arrives on your doorstep practically the next day.

Far easier than picking up your dry cleaning, as one Gilt Groupie points out. “They make it really painless to spend a lot of money,” says Rowland. "That is, until you look at your bank account.”

Look for a Gilt Groupe Anonymous in your neighborhood soon.

Plus: Check out Fashion Beast, for more news on the latest runway shows, hot designers, and emerging trends .

Lesley M. M. Blume is a writer and journalist based in New York City, where she was born. The author of three books for Knopf, Ms. Blume has worked for Cronkite Productions, The Jordan Times in Amman, and ABC News Nightline.