Tips to Safely Shop Flash Sale Sites for the Holidays

By Laura Heller, dealnews writer

First there was the daily deal, made famous by Groupon and Living Social, and then there were flash sales: the online version of designer sample sales. Shoppers living in New York, and to a lesser extent Los Angeles, have long-enjoyed sample sales, which provide an inexpensive opportunity to be the best-dressed in last season's overstock fashions. During a sample sale, deeply-discounted apparel, shoes, and accessories are available to anyone willing to wait in line and fight other fashionistas.

Flash sales are the online counterpart to sample sales, and they have an aura of exclusivity and the implication that you're getting quite a bargain. Thus, you may consider shopping sites like Gilt while hunting for special gifts for the holiday season. But, beware! We advise you to use caution, as there are numerous caveats to keep in mind.

Pressure to Buy Quickly

Online flash sales recreate the sample sale experience — online retailers snap up overstock designer items and launch sales. Sites like One Kings Lane, RueLaLa, and the Gilt Groupe family of shops release their high-end merchandise, and the shopping frenzy begins. The limited nature and purported rare availability of designer stock creates anticipation, and drives sales in a manner akin to Black Friday.

Daily deals can sometimes create a sense of urgency to buy, too, but these deals pale in comparison to the pressure associated with trying to score an item during a flash sale. And it's precisely the ways in which these sites are set up and operated that make them both compelling sources for holiday gifts — and potential buying disasters.

A Cautionary Tale (from this Writer's Own Experiences)

Although you may feel the pressure to buy quickly, you shouldn't make a purchase without careful investigation, as I've learned. My flash sale strategy is pretty simple: log on within seconds of a sale starting and hope that I'm not met with items already marked "sold out" or tagged as being "in another member's cart." The temporary unavailability of an item is both good and bad: good for shoppers who want to ponder their decisions, bad for the remaining buyers who are waiting impatiently for the item to possibly free up.

Recently I jumped on a flash sale notification for a Cuisinart Blender, like the one pictured, for just $50 at One Kings Lane, and I manage to quickly add this baby to my cart. But there was another item on my to-buy list; a friend asked me to pick her up a 12-cup programmable stainless steel thermal carafe coffee pot. I found one for $30 and into the cart it also went.

Yes! I got my items because I acted fast! One small win for Laura! Plus, I got both my kitchen items for cheap! But then they arrived ... and my winning "12-cup programmable coffee pot" was in fact a 12-volt coffeemaker, meant to be plugged into a car or camper, and not an electrical outlet. Bah!

Tips to Safely Navigate Flash Sales While Shopping for the Holidays

Tip No. 1: Don't rush through your shopping or checkout. Acting fast is a recipe for mis-buys and disappointment, as I've learned all too well; neither my friend nor I have any use for a 12-volt coffeemaker, and all sales are final at One Kings Lane. In fact, most items on flash sale sites are not returnable.

Tip No. 2: Familiarize yourself with return policies for the site, but also for each individual item. A 5-Piece Henckels Cutlery Knife Block Set on My Habit, for example, can be returned for a full refund within 21 days, but a D.L. & Co. 10-oz Black Jaipur Candle is final sale.

These "Limited Time Only" sales are very much under limits. I could find no trace of the "12-cup coffee pot" at One Kings Lane once the sale ended. And as surprising as the actual 12-volt coffeemaker was, the customer service agent that I called was able to verify the original product was just that.

Tip No. 3: Know that for most flash sale sites, once a sale ends, all the sold items are removed from the site, and there's almost no way to verify the details of a purchase outside of calling to speak with a customer service representative.

Tip No. 4: Even if you manage to bag all of the items on your shopping list, chances are you'll still have to pay a shipping fee. Unlike other discount sellers, free shipping is not the norm on most flash sale sites. Review each site's shipping and handling policies before you buy.

Another word on shipping: dates can be protracted. The staggered nature of limited time sales also means staggered shipping. Many flash sale sites, but not all, wait until the entire sale is over before sending out merchandise, which could mean several weeks or more will pass before an item is shipped. Check listed ship dates carefully to make sure your purchase will arrive in time.

Tip No. 5: Do your research so you know if you're really getting a deal. Sometimes in the time-crunch of a sale, shoppers forget to double check the flash sale price against other online retailers. The New York Times recently found items listed on sites like Gilt, Hautelook, RueLaLa, and Ideeli for less than the flash sale price at other online outlets. Therefore, it's good to do a quick search before buying.

Tip No. 6: Remember that the merchant calls the shots. When an auction ends, most items go "out of stock," making it nearly impossible for replacements to be issued.

Having almost learned my lesson, I ventured to flash-sale shop again for a housewarming gift for a friend. I had a 9-piece plate, bowl, and serving dish in my cart, but an 8-piece set arrived at my door. It's not even that the serving dish was missing — one of the plates was completely absent from the set. Upon speaking to a rep at One Kings Lane, they concluded that they were unable to properly fulfill my order. They did, however, manage to refund me and issue a $20 credit. I came out ahead, but I'm still out a housewarming gift.

During the holidays especially, most shoppers are under a lot of stress: searching for the perfect gift at the right price can be overwhelming. Flash sales are another way for online shoppers to save big, but are just as often simply high-stress shopping situations.

Front page photo credit: Coupon Connector
Photo credits top to bottom: One Kings Lane, Everything Kitchen, Apple Advice, and Rat Race Escape Artists

Laura Heller is a freelance writer based in Chicago who specializes in mass market retail trends and consumer electronics industries. You can follow her on Twitter @lfheller. You can also sign up for an email alert for all dealnews features.
DealNews may be compensated by companies mentioned in this article. Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).


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1 comment
I really have a lot of objections to this post.

1)  For your Tip 2, it was entirely your fault, not One King's Lane.  They listed the item accurately and shipped the correct item to you, as promised.

2)  Only highly popular items would sell out very quickly; most flash sales don't sell out.  Note the amount of leftover inventory this year Gilt has accumulated (reported in many business websites).

3)  For your Tip 3, all of the orders I have placed from every single sites you mentioned are entirely reviewable under "My Orders" or variation of the same theme.  I have never failed to be able to track and review my past order.  The best interface out of them all,[/url] and Gilt.  Rue La La also does a good job.  Ideeli does not link to the product, but that's fine, I see the title of the products.

4)  I think it is rather unfair to keep mentioning One King's Lane in a negative light in your article when they have actually performed 1) completely accurately and 2) went out of their way to issue a refund PLUS a credit while you paid a deeply discounted price.  Also, the missing item is their supplier's fault, not theirs.

I do, however, agree with you that shoppers just need to be resourceful, and have no rush to make their purchase.  I also don't have attachment to any "stuff" that money can buy, so even if I miss something I don't feel bad at all; it will show up cheaper elsewhere in the future.  There are only so many products in the world.