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In Manhattan, Shoppers Taste the Guilty Pleasures of a Buyer's Market

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By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 3, 2009

In Manhattan, during this bleak-is-the-new-black economy, buyer's remorse has morphed into an entirely different kind of guilt.

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"I feel bad, like I am taking advantage. But what are you going to do?," said a dressed-down New Yorker as she grabbed two bags of Sumatra coffee at Balducci's, the gourmet food store that shuttered its Chelsea and Lincoln Center outposts a few days ago. "The coffee's 50 percent off. You should get some."

Shoppers, don't apologize. This is your New York minute. Finally, fabulousness is affordable.

"It's a great time to take advantage of New York shopping deals," said Dannielle Kyrillos, editor at large at DailyCandy.com, which tracks fashion trends and sample sales. "No one is not discounting."

Though New York ranks as one of the best shopping cities in the world -- visitors in 2007 spent $5.7 billion on shopping, more than on entertainment, according to NYC & Co., the official tourism office -- its stores have been equally bruised by the economic downturn. "It is a very challenging environment for all retailers," said National Retail Federation spokeswoman Kathy Grannis. "It is safe to say that retailers are trying everything they can to get more shoppers into their stores."

During a recent spring weekend bursting with sunshine and hope, I couldn't help but open my heart (and wallet) to stores in need. I would never turn my back on an injured dog or a lost child, so how could I ignore the urgent pleas of Cleo & Patek, a SoHo boutique offering up to 90 percent off its designer bags?

"The sale will last until the recession is over," said salesman Joël Schneor, who accessorized his outfit with a calculator. "We almost closed the store, but now it's a little better."

Toward the back of the room, two gal pals were deciding whether the $50 price tag on a bag that normally costs more than $600 offset the lentil-brown color. (It did.) On the opposite wall, Schneor showed me a design worthy of Grace Kelly's arm. The list price was $1,048, but after some quick arithmetic, the final figure was closer to $215. I wondered whether this purchase qualified as a charitable contribution and whether I could note it as such on my tax form.

At the Market NYC, a consortium of indie designers huddled under one roof, Vernakular owner Raoul Calleja had set up his wares in a prime spot near the entryway, a direct line from Mulberry Street. He was selling photographic images silk-screened on such portable canvases as T-shirts, journals and jackets. "We're just keeping our fingers crossed and trying to be smart about business," he said as I eyed a T-shirt ($25 each, or two for $45) displaying a photo of a squished Heinz packet, the perfect gift for a friend with a condiment addiction.

Designer Jillian Galla took an economist's approach to her hair ornaments: "Accessories always do well in a bad economy. It's always easier to update your wardrobe with an accessory than a new outfit by Chloe or Marc Jacobs." I'm not sure how warm her mini-hats would be come winter -- the vintage-style pieces resembled cozies for your head -- but, at $25, they were certainly cheaper than a wool sweater.

To lure customers, True Boutique, a standalone shop nearby, uses a tack commonly employed at Christmas office parties: Offer free booze, and they will come. Inside the narrow shop, which sells women's fashions by such designers as Dallin Chase and Richard Ruiz, a metal tub filled with beer, wine and bottled water rested near a wall of high-end denim. As I nursed white wine in a plastic cup, I imagined how much fun drunk-shopping would be until I woke up the next morning with a pair of $200 jeans by my bed. The store also has a sale rack and organizes special events, such as a half-off day on all items, including the pair of jeans that really wanted to come home with me.

The economic meltdown has forced a lot of fashionistas to reassess their lifestyles, starting with their wardrobes. "We are getting a lot more great clothing than before," said Milo Bernstein, who owns Ina consignment shops, "as new consigners try to capitalize on what they have in their closets." I personally would like to thank those folks for their existential castoffs: a black Zac Posen jacket with cutout shoulders, a pair of sexy secretary Chanel heels and a Gucci purse with red trim and classic interlocking G's. Ina's five stores carry only brag-worthy labels, which are marked down by a third or a half, then further reduced if they linger too long on the shelves (20 percent after a month, 50 percent after two months). The Thom Browne suits brought in by a laid-off financier had been sold, but depending on the stock market, more could be on the way.


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