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Invite-Only Shopping Explained: What's Good, From Gilt Groupe to Glam List

By Leila Brillson and Ben Deitz
Explaining invite-only shopping to the uninitiated is a daunting task. The timed sales, the select merchandise -- shoppers who are used to the traditional way of e-commerce are usually baffled. "Why don't they have my size?" "The item was in my basket last night, where did it go today?" Of course, those who are familiar with the system, waiting diligently for their sale to start, have a hard time being lured away from the exclusive deals.

By using an invite code and a log-in, invite-only shoppers are able to view a limited number of goods and reserve them for a stated amount of minutes. (Most sites have a showy countdown display.) If they do not buy in time, the item is released and another person can snatch it up, leaving the indecisive at a loss.

Simply stated, invite-only sites are online sample sales. What started as a repository for last season's goods and overstocked items became a way for shoppers to get deep discounts and for companies to get more recognition. Designers and companies win, offering previews to next season's goods or cutting down on unwanted inventory. The built-in clientele and independent sales appeal to smaller companies, like Alexander Wang or A-Life, while the subscription-based aspect works for larger labels like Calvin Klein or Ann Taylor. For emerging brands, an association with a trusted name like Gilt Groupe both adds legitimacy and lowers marketing costs, since Gilt does its own styling and creates its own "lookbooks." The sites themselves benefit; Gilt Groupe has become a legitimate location for high fashion, and its sartorial shoots, dedicated fanbase and designer picks have made it a proper retailing tastemaker. Lastly, shoppers get a few perks, too; every site prides itself on its exclusivity, forgoing the traditional Amazon experience for a more high-end, in-crowd feel. Also, each product has its own incentive program; for each person that uses your specific invite code for a purchase, a discount is applied to your next purchase, effectively turning savvy shopping into a discount venture.

The fashion followers among us, Leila Brillson and Ben Deitz, tracked and tried every major invite-only service available for a month. Visiting daily and browsing selections, return policies, prices and promotions, they've gathered a comprehensive guide to the new world of online, time-sensitive sales. The result? The addictive, pressure-based shopping experience, as paired with rapidly changing selections, got them hooked. Still, not all sale sites are created equal, so here's how you can get the best bang for your buck, while adding key pieces to your wardrobes. Oh, and if you're looking for an invite, let us know. We've certainly got you covered.


Glamlist


Incentive: $5 for each referred friend that makes a purchase; $20 for 9 months of VIP access
This isn't to say that Glamlist isn't worth at least a look, but you should expect some odd styles and designers that are unfamiliar to you. The brands may be relatively unknown, but the site has a style selector and boutiques, which direct users to certain trends and looks. Women can find some very nice basic dresses and skirts, with sale prices rarely exceeding $100. Men, however, should look elsewhere -- unless they're going for that "something's a bit off," European-tourist vibe.

How often do we go back: Never. While the boutiques are cute for some, most of this stuff can be found off-line, when you aren't trawling for deals on exclusive brands.


Gilt




Incentive: $25 off for each referred friend that makes a purchase
The "black-and-gold" is known as the pioneer of invite-only shopping, and for good reason: Gilt has a classical, easy-to-use interface, a great incentives program, and, most importantly, excellent designer wares. Elite, emerging designers of women's apparel appear regularly, while well-known street brands like A-life and American Apparel keep the men interested. The three-tiered site is the only one we examined that has individual spaces for men, women, and home. Gilt offers excellent deals not only on men's and women's clothing, but also on baby apparel, accessories, and even travel. The styling is excellent and the selection is top-notch, which can almost be a downfall since good things are rarely a secret. If you procure an invite, you'll have to act quickly on deals (starting at noon), as you'll be competing against an ever-growing number of savvy shoppers.

How often we go back: Daily, we're ashamed to admit. Gilt Groupe hasn't let us down, and its fast shipping is an unfortunate addicting plus.


Editor's Closet



Incentive: $10 for each referred friend that makes a purchase
At first glance, Editor's Closet might fool you into thinking it is of the same quality as Gilt. But look beneath the shabby interface and obnoxious on-screen music, and you'll find a selection of deals for women but almost nothing for men. Editor's Closet offers the smallest selection of any invite-only shopping site, and, while it may sometimes feature name-brand designers like Betsey Johnson, it generally presents nothing more than a handful of items. The simple interface isn't necessarily more straightforward, but just poorly designed, often leading you to a clothing sale when the featured items are actually sunglasses, jewelry or luggage. With such sparse offerings, the site feels like it is still in beta.

How often we go back: Quite frankly, never. Editor's Closet is just a little too stuffy for us, and while someone might like the slightly risky feel of the site, it doesn't appeal to our sensibilities.


Shop It to Me



Incentive: $10 gift card for every 10 people you invite
An alternative to the way most invite-only shopping sites work, Shop It to Me doesn't limit the specific clothing lines featured. Rather than offer deals itself, it trawls the Web for sales and specials. Upon joining, you select the brands that you like, and Shop It to Me creates a custom e-mail that alerts you to promotions or sales. While the process of selecting brands is a bit time consuming, it does make for a very personalized shopping experience. Shop It to Me even offers personalized incentives for telling your friends about the site. You can choose between $10 gift cards from a variety of stores, including iTunes, Starbucks, and the Gap. While the amount may not be much, being able to choose where your money goes is a nice perk. You may have to wait a while to find special deals, and might miss out on some items you'd have known about via other sites, but, out of the sites featured, Shop It to Me simply provides the most choice. We can't wait to see the technology applied to other sectors, like men's clothing or even tech.

How often do we go back: Pretty regularly, especially when we have something in mind. Recently, it saved Leila's butt for hard to find wedding shoes, and its gift card program is fairly handy, too.


One King's Lane



Incentive: $25 off for each referred friend that makes a purchase
The only non-fashion, invite-only site we tried (and, really, could find), One King's Lane focuses specifically on home decor products such as soap, candles and cutlery, carving out a niche for itself as the place to go for interior decoration. Like the other featured sites, though, choice depends on daily deals, and a shopper may not like the aesthetic of the products available. (Choices range from high-end Oriental rugs to bizarre, oversized dog beds.) When it comes to simple things like bath towels and shower curtains, however, fairly good deals are available, and at a quality higher than Bed Bath & Beyond's offerings.

How often do we go back: On special occasions, or when we are looking for something specifically. OKL has some lovely things, but it's not a place to shop on a regular basis, unless you have an addiction to tchotkes.


RueLaLa



Incentive: $10 off for each referred friend that makes a purchase
RueLaLa
is definitely more about good deals than high fashion, but it offers a large selection of brands like Donna Karan and Anne Klein. The menswear focuses on casual and sporty attire that rarely exceeds $100, is generally under $50, and is usually featured in one sale per day. These offerings are typically skippable, however, as you can find similar styles at a local Target for even cheaper. RueLaLa also offers a small home decor section, where you can find cheaper wares than you can at One King's Lane. Although RueLaLa offers a measly $10 credit for any friends you invite who then buy, that amount does go further than it would on other sites, given RueLaLa's better prices. An on-screen countdown for each sale is a nice touch, letting shoppers know when a sale runs out. RueLaLa is worth the occasional glance, but purchase with haste, as the few offers for good deals go quickly.

How often do we go back: During good sales. Seeing as we get e-mailed by the site on a regular basis, we can pick and choose what we'd like to check out, which cuts down on wading through all of the rubbish.


HauteLook



Incentive: $10 off for each referred friend that makes a purchase, though changes promotionally
Probably the best site for beginners, HauteLook's opening page hits you with a smattering of products. Everything from Teddy Bears to teeth-whitening kits, and Jimi Hendrix LPs to jewelry, the random nature of the selections can detract from the high style that sometimes appears. Yet, while the site's design feels like a glossy version of Sky Mall, the selection is large and straightforward. Skipping out on the future-forward stylings of Gilt, the site regularly presents more mainstream selections. While the men's selection is often limited, the children's section makes HauteLook stand out amongst many of its peers. Once again, only a $10 credit is offered as incentive for inviting friends; which doesn't go far, considering Hautelook's nicer offerings reside in the Gilt price range.

How often we go back: While the site's selection updates frequently, the lag time on order placement has gotten us down. Also, HauteLook seems to say yes to what Gilt rejects, lowering the overall quality. So, we return less and less.


Ideeli



Incentive: $25 off for each referred friend that makes a purchase
Perhaps our second favorite pick for women (Gilt being number one), Ideeli consistently offers good prices on established and emerging brands. For women only, the site often competes with Gilt over sales and designers, so if you miss something at the overly populated Gilt, it might pop up later on Ideeli. The site also offers something that no other invite-only shopping place has: a VIP section. For $25, buyers get "Front Row" access, or the ability to preview sales before the rest of the group -- a decent investment for fashion fans. Beware of ship dates, as Ideeli takes a while to get your product out, and the shabby, scroll-down layout and ambiguous sale dates are a downfall, as are the slightly catalog-esque photo shoots. Yet, with a convenient single page for all sales and sections, Ideeli is a good bet for easy, gorgeous looks for ladies.

How often do we go back: Every other day. Seeing as it's not in demand like Gilt, inventory will stick around, and sales last longer. It's good to check out, but not on a daily basis.

Tags: deals, editors closet, EditorsCloset, features, gilt, glamlist, hautelook, ideeli, invite only, InviteOnly, one kings lane, OneKingsLane, onlineshopping, ruelala, sales, shop it to me, ShopItToMe, shopping, top, web

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