In-the-know bargain hunters regularly get invited to special events where they snap up designer garb and brand-name products at prices up to 90 percent off retail.

They’re called sample sales. And here’s how you can get in on the deal.

Sample sales can be big, glam affairs featuring cocktails and cut-rate couture. Or they might be hush-hush bargain bonanzas in someone’s garage. Some local stores even sell samples on consignment.

Yet you’ll rarely see these sales advertised except by word of mouth. They occur sporadically – as little as once a year or at the whim of the seller who feels like cleaning house.

Samples are basically leftovers – show-and-tell items that manufacturer representatives use to demonstrate a new product line and drum up orders from retailers. Sometimes, they are manufacturer overruns that didn’t sell in retail stores.

Many sample sales offer limited sizes or selections (few garments over size 10 for women, for example). They allow no returns, usually accept cash or checks only and might want you to bring your own shopping bag.

Here are some tips on sample sales:

· Be aggressive. Get there early, before the best stuff is gone. “People are like vultures,” said Kathy James, who once had a box of dress-up costumes for her daughter snatched out of her hands by another woman, who then said smoothly: “Oh, sorry, didn’t mean to be pushy.”

· Bring your own box. “You can’t just really stand there and think, ‘Do I want this?’” said Lilybeth Ching. “You have to just put it in the box. If you take too long, everything will be gone.” Suzanne O’Connor of recommends a shoulder bag so you can shop hands-free; she hangs the hangers from it while she’s deciding what to buy.

· Dress smart. Wear comfortable clothes you can strip off when you are allowed to try things on, advises O’Connor – there’s usually no dressing room.

· Don’t be afraid to bargain. As the sale goes on, prices often are marked down.

· Ask for more. Amy Eng said it doesn’t hurt to ask what else they have in stock; sometimes the sellers will put out new items throughout the sale.

· Sign up. If it’s a good sale, James makes sure to get on the e-mail or mailing list to get notices for future sales.

Why would anyone shop like this?

The appeal is the deal, sample-sale shoppers say, plus the sense of being part of an exclusive group getting in on it.

“It is addicting,” said Lilybeth Ching, who happened into her first sample sale last year. “You don’t know what you’ll get when you stop. I stock up if it’s really good because samples make good gifts.” The best-known sample sales usually involve designer clothing, but bargain shoppers can find other products, too – candles, scrapbooking supplies, kitchen gear, furniture and more.

© 2005, The Seattle Times.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.