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Gilt Designer Outlet: Inside the Greatest Shopping Experience You've Never Heard Of

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A Gilt warehouse sale in LA.
A Gilt warehouse sale in LA.
Getty

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As you age, you think of yourself as growing more reasonable, more measured. You think you’d be able to resist succumbing to the sort of hysteria that afflicts teen girls at a One Direction concert. Then, your friend texts you, "GILT WAREHOUSE SALE STARTING NEXT FRIDAY!!!!! I HAVE TICKETS TO THE THURSDAY PREVIEW!!!!!!!!" and you drop your phone, wild-eyed and shrieking like Harry Styles has just made eye contact with you while crooning "You Don’t Know You’re Beautiful."

Racks of $10,000 evening gowns, 800-thread count sheet sets, object d’arte humidifiers, posh baby blankets — if it’s been for sale on Gilt.com in the last calendar year, it’s on the shelves at the brick-and-mortar.

Gilt, the designer flash-sale site, bases its shipping operations just outside Louisville, Kentucky. Once a year, the company takes all of its overstocks, damages, returns, and buying disasters to a strip mall and lets the general public have at it — at a very heavy discount. Racks of $10,000 evening gowns, 800-thread count sheet sets, object d’arte humidifiers, posh baby blankets — if it’s been for sale on Gilt.com in the last calendar year, it’s on the shelves at the brick-and-mortar.

There isn’t a ton of advanced warning (this year, its third, the company announced the sale just a week before it began), so customers must strategize quickly. The sale is usually in the late summer, lasts three or four weeks, and makes its home in a seasonal shop that is alternately a Halloween Mart, Fireworks Depot, or Christmas Town. It’s always a feeding frenzy. This year, the aforementioned invite-only, night-before preview for heavy users, media VIPs, and randomly selected Gilt members was so successful that management had to request an emergency shipment of goods and mandate overtime for employees just to keep the place from looking bare on the first official day of the sale.

"The preview sale was insane. The next morning, people were lined up all the way down to Ross [Dress for Less, about 100 yards away]. They ran in as soon as the door opened," says Justin, the senior inventory and quality control manager for Gilt. "We’ve got an average of 100 people standing outside every morning at 10." Tuesday is the busiest day, he says, because staff restocks Monday nights. "People show up Tuesdays starting around 8:30 AM. They bring lawn chairs."

gily sale

A markdown at the Louisville sale. Image: Cecelia Oldham

Many gather to camp out even earlier, with the bulk arriving by seven in the morning and stragglers showing up around nine — a full hour before the store opens. "I usually get here around 6:30, but I overslept!" says one regular. Does she take every Tuesday off to get in line? "It’s funny, but I’ve had a headache every Tuesday this month!" she says. Her kind of commitment wasn’t unusual — about 30 repeat offenders were lined up outside on the last Tuesday morning of the sale and none of them were professional shoppers. "We come every day!" says a thirtysomething devotee, who is due to deliver twins in November. "I’m furnishing my nursery." When the warehouse sale closes up shop for the year, she and the other regulars plan to start a Facebook group to stay in touch. "We’re friends now! Five weeks of sitting in line together is a lot. I’m excited to see her babies!" says the next woman to her.

Like the nursery-furnishing mom-to-be, most customers come in "looking for something specific" according to one temp employee, a teacher in the local public schools. But the customer base isn’t limited to diehards like the ladies in line — there are teenage girls buying a poster or knicknack for a buck or two and professional eBayers out in full force. The resellers aren't hard to spot: scan the lines for people with more than a dozen pairs of the same shoes in different sizes. Others shop ahead for the holidays, grabbing up neutral gifts like scarves, soaps, and throws. "I’m going to give everyone in my office one of these candles for Christmas," says Lee, a realtor. "No one needs to know they were three dollars." Not everyone is interested in paying for their goods, even at these prices: the dressing rooms have been shut down on multiple occasions to thwart shoplifters, security guards match goods and receipts at the door, and the overall theft is described by employees as "constant" and "creative."

"I usually get here around 6:30, but I overslept!" says one regular. Does she take every Tuesday off to get in line? "It’s funny, but I’ve had a headache every Tuesday this month!"

Competition to get the best stuff is fierce. According to a National Guardsman moonlighting at the sale, all furniture is sold within 10 or 15 minutes of the 9:30 open time. "People just grab tags [to claim the pieces]," he says. "They check for damages later." Christine, an event planner, says another shopper broke off part of her nail trying to get a pair of Vivienne Westwood pumps away from her. "I know the deals are good, but there’s no need to snatch!"

Since the discounts are steep and time is of the essence, impulse purchases are a major driver of business. Melanie, an attorney visiting from out town, happened on the sale and bought a grandfather clock. How will she get it back home? "Details. I think I’m going to rent a trailer from Home Depot and hope for the best. It’s perfect."