Let Us Help You With That
You’re not a truly smart shopper until you know the answers to these burning questions.
1. How do stores decide when to put merchandise on sale? These days, sales generally start as soon as stuff looks (to the computer, not the store manager) as though it’s not selling. Where retail was once governed by a fixed markdown schedule—by which merchandise was reduced twice before being moved to the clearance rack—most stores now have sophisticated inventory software that analyzes buying patterns and advises which items should be marked down, by how much, and when. This is why the same salesclerk who used to conspiratorially whisper the date that a hideously overpriced rack of leather coats would get stamped 30 percent off may seem less helpful today: She usually doesn’t know until a day or two ahead of time.
2. How much is the markup on the average, say, dress shirt? A department store’s initial markup generally runs about 60 percent, which is quite profitable if the store can clear most of it. If it has to make more markdowns than expected on a certain vendor’s items, the store will demand “markdown money,” usually deducted from its next order. But at large “vertical” chains—those that design and source all their own clothing, like J.Crew and the Gap—the initial markup on a comparable item is a lot higher, because they buy all their goods directly from Hong Kong suppliers that may charge only $2 to make a turtleneck.
3. Where does unsold clothing go? First of all, not a lot of clothing goes unsold these days. Retailers keep inventories lean with the help of the aforementioned forecasting software. So if you thought that was what ended up at the Wrentham outlets, you thought wrong: Most outlet stores are treated like distinct chains, with design teams, merchandise assortments, and distribution facilities separate from their larger counterparts’. The rare serious missteps are usually snatched up by a few shadowy middlemen, who in turn sell to the likes of Filene’s Basement, T.J. Maxx, and Overstock.com. But brands such as Coach, Nike, and Ralph Lauren have long taken great pains to keep their merchandise—especially their staples—out of the off-price stores. So when a big retailer goes out of business or cancels an order at the last minute, that kind of inventory has been known to show up halfway around the world—anyplace where a thousand $1 red Polo shirtdresses won’t damage a brand’s carefully cultivated “exclusivity.” It’s for a similar reason that different outposts of discount stores get different stock.
4. What does it take to get on the wait list for a Birkin bag? The wait list—pardon, dream list—is closed. When it opens—and no, we don’t know when that will be—you can get on it by signing up at the Hermès store nearest your home (you can’t get on the list if you’re out of the area). The purse generally takes a year or two to arrive—though if you’re a celebrity stylist or fashion magazine editor or other member of the fashion intelligentsia, your dream is likely to be a bit less deferred. The only mortal we know with a Birkin bag owns it because her mother died while waiting for it (true story). And, oh yeah, they start at $6,800. Recently a cherry-red crocodile Birkin sold on eBay for about $37,000. Other than eBay, a Boston Hermès source says, your best bet for a Birkin is a weekend in Paris, where occasionally “they will actually be selling out on the store floor.”
5. How much does it cost to rent space on Newbury? The toniest ground-floor spaces on the first four blocks generally rent for as much as $180 a square foot. A basement or a second or third floor with a decent window will fetch around $100 per, or as little as $65 a square foot if it’s a tricky space or situated above a restaurant. Larger spaces are generally—though not always—cheaper, per square foot, than smaller ones. The rent at Stil, at 170 Newbury Street, is $10,000 a month for 800 square feet; Valentino’s 3,000-square-foot space two blocks away was on the market for an estimated $50,000 a month before it moved in.
6. How can one area have so many denim-only stores? (And what’s with all the hippie/lefty-sounding denim brands—Citizens of Humanity, People’s Liberation, Denim for Immortality—selling $200 pairs of jeans?) First, the easy question. In the words of Boston real estate broker Tom Brennan: “rich European college students.” The city’s students are among the country’s wealthiest, which skews a lot of our fashion offerings toward the young and well-to-do. But it’s also true that, for reasons sociologists are still trying to explain, women care exponentially more about jeans than they did during the Clinton presidency. When Alison Barnard was writing the business plan for her North End denim shop, In-jean-ius, she used a survey estimating the average U.S. woman had eight pairs of jeans; two years later, that number is 13. Hundreds of small “premium denim” brands have emerged to cash in on some of this demand, all trying, in Barnard’s words, “to sell people on the perfect fit” (thus the utopian names).
7. Why is a size 4 at Banana Republic an 8 at Louis Boston? This is one of those evergreen questions in American fashion and retail, up there with: Should we sell cheap stuff to more people or expensive stuff to fewer people? Should our mirrors be skinny or fat? Our space big and airy or intimate? Ever more-rotund American customers appreciate “vanity sizing,” which makes them feel thinner, but lately the pendulum seems to be swinging back toward “European sizing,” which gives the impression of quality and exclusivity, as well as the assurance that you won’t see your blazer on anyone very fat.
8. How many returns does it take to land you on the return-policy blacklist? (Wait, there’s a return-policy blacklist?) There is no blacklist per se—yet—but over the past few years a lot of major retailers have started using software called Verify-1 to monitor return activity and target “serial wardrobers”—people who wear outfits once and then return them—turning away some one percent of returns. (You’ll know you’re being tracked if the clerk asks to swipe your driver’s license.) The company that sells Verify-1, the Return Exchange, hasn’t started pooling information among retailers, so a customer’s return record does not go beyond that one store. But you can request a copy of your activity at thereturnexchange.com.
9. Are Boston clerks just being friendly when they ask if you’ve ever shopped there before? Actually, they’re tracking your purchases. Retailers aren’t allowed to share or sell this information, but knowing what kind of merchandise attracts frequent shoppers versus first-time and occasional buyers helps stores figure out what to put in windows and how to arrange items so more people will buy more things. That’s another reason everyone has a loyalty program these days: The more that stores know about their frequent buyers, the more they can get us to shell out for.