How to satisfy a nose for a bargain

If Armani, DKNY and Paul Smith are labels you aspire to but can't afford, take a trip to your nearest TK Maxx.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
TK Maxx, the American "off-price" shopping experience that offers designer labels and brand names up to 60 per cent cheaper than usual, has arrived in Britain. The shops are no-frills affairs with clothes grouped by size and item to make rummaging through the 50,000 pieces of stock that fill each store in any one day as easy as possible.

Across America, the company is as well known as Woolworth's; there are more than 1,000 branches with sales for this year projected to exceed $6bn. This month, new branches open in Bournemouth, Croydon and Hull, making a total of 13 stores in the UK. With investment capital of pounds 25m, and the aim to open one hundred stores in this country over the next few years, TK Maxx promises to be on a high street near you soon. The first branch opened two years ago in Bristol, closely followed by another in Liverpool, which has built up a loyal and growing following of shopaholics.

The Independent visited the Woking store in the Peacocks shopping mall last week in pursuit of fashion bargains. Jacqueline Fothergill and her 25-year-old daughter were in search of something for Charlotte to wear for a part-time teaching job. "I come here once a month," says Jacqueline, who was introduced to the store by her mother who is 65. "You really have to delve in - you can't just judge it by first appearances."

Indeed at first glance, the brightly lit stores look like the sort of places you would want to avoid. Most are situated within shopping malls where rents are cheap. But marketing manager Deborah Dolce says that TK Maxx is like nothing else on the British high street. It is, she says, a "classless shopping environment". For Jacqueline Fothergill, who usually shops at Marks & Spencer and local designer boutiques in Weybridge, the shop provides a range of choice that is unavailable to her elsewhere. She looks out for French and German labels that are cut for taller women.

Charlotte pulls out a fitted jacket by Ally Capellino, reduced from pounds 200 to pounds 100. There is also one in red linen by Nicole Farhi that catches her eye. Charlotte is a student in London and would never usually be able to afford pounds 200 for a jacket. She decides she can't afford pounds 100 either, but she is tempted. Eventually, mother and daughter move on to the separates rails where Charlotte spots a linen shirt, vest and trouser combination by Fenn Wright and Manson. The shirt is reduced from pounds 69 to pounds 24.99 and the trousers from pounds 89 to pounds 29. The whole outfit comes to less than the usual price of the trousers. Charlotte has, in TK Maxx corporate speak, cracked the concept.

Some customers question whether the stock in TK Maxx is legitimate. One shopper, 17-year-old Lisa Carver, holds up a pair of CK jeans, reduced to pounds 40. "If they're that cheap," she says, "why are they here? There might be something wrong with them. They could have fallen off the back of a lorry."

There is nothing unlawful about the stock in TK Maxx which changes daily, with 10,000 new pieces delivered to every store each week. You might visit one day and find nothing to your taste. A week later, there might be a pair of DKNY shoes from last season. If you are lucky, you might find a jacket or shirt that you have been lusting after from the current season's stock. The company prides itself on an expert team of buyers who know how to negotiate a bargain. A deal might be struck to buy some dead stock and the buyer will then push the supplier to throw in some current season samples as well. So you never know what you might find if you look hard enough.

In the menswear department, Ian Lloyd, 29, is browsing through the underwear rail. He has spotted a pair of Dolce e Gabbana trunks for pounds 19.99, reduced from pounds 40, and Calvin Klein underwear reduced from pounds 17 to pounds 12.99. What he really should have had his eye on, however, was the navy Paul Smith shirt that Natasha Abrahams, 21, has just snapped up, along with a pair of Armani jeans, and two French Connection shirts for pounds 5. Ms Abrahams is a student at Middlesex and she has spread the word among her fellow students. "They're just ridiculous prices," she says.

Usually, high-street clothes shops are aimed at a particular type of person, in most cases, size 10-14, ages 18-35. TK Maxx caters for everyone. At the Woking shop, we saw three generations of family - grandparents, mother and small children. Sizes range from a few months to size 26 in the 18-plus collection. It is a style of shopping that might not be to most people's taste: you need to have a nose for a bargain. These clothes are not edited or merchandised in any way - much of it will be anathema to your personal style - and if you are used to having a whole outfit ready and waiting for you to try on, TK Maxx might be a bit of a shock. But if rummaging through a rail of clothes in search of the unexpected is your idea of shopping heaven, the hunt for the killer outfit is half the fun.

TK Maxx stores are located at: the Galleries Shopping Centre, Broadmead, Bristol; the Potteries Centre, Hanley, Stoke on Trent; the Galleria Shopping Centre, Hatfield; Parker Street, off Clayton Square, Liverpool; Monument Mall, Newcastle; Broad Street Mall, Reading; High Street, Below Bar, Southampton, and the Peacocks Centre, Woking. TK Maxx, Times Square, Sutton, Surrey opens 31 May.

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