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Smart Buying

Why Flash Sales Aren't Always Good Deals

Members-only sites offer discounts on select items for a limited time, but you may find better prices from other retailers with lower shipping fees and more generous return policies.

If you like designer brands but don’t like their high prices, you’re probably familiar with flash sale sites such as Gilt, HauteLook, One Kings Lane and Rue La La. These members-only online outlets offer select merchandise for a limited period of time at discounted prices (and membership typically is free). You can find apparel, accessories, home goods and furnishings from Gucci, Kate Spade, Lilly Pulitzer, Ralph Lauren, Rolex, Tory Burch and other top designers for 60% or more off retail prices at these sites.

However, deals on flash sale sites aren’t always as good as they seem. Here’s why:

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Sometimes you can find better deals elsewhere. Because the sales are accessible only to the sites’ members, the offers appear to be exclusive, says consumer expert Andrea Woroch. Plus, the limited time of the sales -- typically 72 hours -- creates a sense of urgency. You’re made to feel like you have to buy an item immediately, or you’ll miss out on a great price. But often the items available on flash sale sites are available elsewhere for the same or lower price, Woroch says.

For example, we founda a pair of Sam Edelman sandals on sale April 15 for $49.97 at members-only HauteLook that were on sale online at Neiman Marcus Last Call for $44.80. And Woroch says that she frequently finds the same or similar home furnishings and accessories on sale for a limited time at members-only sites One Kings Land and Joss & Main for much lower prices at brick-and-mortar retailer HomeGoods. She often can find the same designer jeans that are touted as special deals on apparel flash-sale sites at discount retailers T.J. Maxx and Marshalls.

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So be sure to use a price-comparison site such as Price Grabber or do a Google search to see if items being sold through flash sites can be purchased for a lower price elsewhere. Also check high-end retailers’ outlet stores, such as Nordstrom Rack and Saks Off 5, for discounted luxury goods. You’ll be able to try on clothes or see the items before you purchase them to ensure fit and quality, and you might be able to find coupons for those stores through the outlet mall’s Web site.

Keep in mind that many of the flash sale sites have repeat sales or will let you put items on a waiting list and will notify you if they’re available again, Woroch says. So you don’t need to feel rushed to make a purchase just to snag a low price.

Shipping can be pricier. Major online retailers typically offer free shipping deals, or you can find free shipping codes through sites such as FreeShipping.org. But free shipping is a rarity on flash-sale sites, Woroch says. Some sites, such as Rue La La and One Kings Lane, currently are offering a shipping deal that allows members to pay a $9.95 fee for unlimited shipping on certain items for 30 days. Of course, exclusions apply. You still have to pay $200 to $350 for furniture delivery from One Kings Lane.

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Our review of shipping fees also found that they tend to be higher on some flash-sale sites. For example, HauteLook offers free shipping on orders totaling $100 or more. However, shipping for purchases less than $100 starts at $7.95. So if you ordered the sandals in the example above from HauteLook, not only would you pay a higher price but also you’d pay more in shipping than if you ordered them from Last Call, which would charge a $5 shipping fee for the sandals.

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Return policies can be stingy. Most brick-and-mortar and online retailers offer a 30-day window for refunds or exchanges. However, we found that some of the flash-sale sites give customers less time to return items or have strict requirements for issuing refunds. And many of the items sold through these sites are nonrefundable.

For example, One Kings Lane gives customers only 14 days within date of an item’s delivery to return it. Return shipping is free if you apply your credit to your One Kings Lane account; otherwise, the shipping cost is deducted from your refund if you apply your credit to your original form of payment. Gilt allows only sized items -- clothing, footwear and belts -- to be returned for a refund. Handbags, toys, ties and other non-sized items aren't eligible for return. Customers have 21 days to return eligible items, which must be unused and in their original packaging. Items priced at $199.99 or less can be returned for Gilt credits. Items priced at $200 or more can be returned for Gilt credits or a refund minus $7.95 for return shipping.

HauteLook, on the other hand, accepts returns up to 90 days after their ship date. (It’s owned by Nordstrom, which has no time limit on returns or exchanges of items from its stores or Web site.) And when I was unhappy with a purchase from Zulily, a members-only site with 72-hour sales on women’s and children’s items, I called a customer service representative and was given a full refund without even having to return the item.

So it pays to check flash-sale retailers’ return policies before making any purchases. If it’s stingy, you don’t want to be stuck with an item you don’t want -- even if you did get it at a good price.

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