Everyone loves a bargain. There’s a sweeping statement. Here’s another: no one likes to feel like they’re being ripped off. Especially when you’re being ripped off by something purporting to be a bargain. That’s the convoluted logic informing Channel 4’s Dispatches, “Secrets of the Discount Stores,” (airing Monday evening 9 December) which aims to unpick the discount offers touted by the likes of cut-price high-street merchant TK Maxx and outlets like Bicester Village. Unpick, and by all intents and purposes deflate.
Certainly, they need to be deflated a little. “Always up to 60% less than the RRP,” is a claim that TK Maxx trumpet on their website. “Always up to” is a dodgy, non-committal bit of verbiage. It doesn’t guarantee anything. The Dispatches expose, however, hinges on the RRP rather than the discount. Namely, that TK Maxx are manufacturing the clothes themselves and inventing said retail prices; or acting in cahoots with certain designer brands to manufacture lower-priced lines.
To be frank, TK Maxx’s claims have always seemed spurious – such as the claim that by working directly with designer brands, they can offer current-season at half-off. How can one retailer really offer a designer label at 50 per cent discount, while everyone else – including the label’s own stores - are selling them at full whack? The simple answer is: they can’t. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. Once you’re inside a TK Maxx, you realise it isn’t some sartorial Garden of Eden packed with cut-price same-season temptation. A lot of TK Maxx’s goods, in my relatively educated opinion, are tat. They’re badly-made of poor-quality fabrics. But that’s the case across many stores on the high-street.
What TK Maxx can offer is the occasional gem. In the fashion industry, everyone has a story: the Azzedine Alaïa belt reduced from £700 to £80; the Lanvin coat reduced from £3,000 to £500; the Christopher Kane dress, from three figures to £250. Apocryphal? No – because I’ve seen these all myself. I’ve heard stories of many more. I actually bought the Lanvin coat. The reason it was so cheap? It was four seasons old at the time.
There’s the rub: don’t go into TK Maxx expecting this season’s Saint Laurent for £4.50. The same is true of Bicester Village. The outlet phenomenon began when designer brands realised that, regardless of season, their goods still had a market – and a value. Think of them as an extended sale, augmented with influxes of product from elsewhere in the world.
A few outlet malls in the United States carry ranges specially created for them - the designer brands I contacted with have a presence in Bicester, as well as representatives of the outlet village itself, deny this is the case there. The shopping experience is also profoundly different. TK Maxx is a free-for-all, high jostling with low, the implication being that bargains await. Bicester is more civilised - boutiques decorated like their full-price equivalents, albeit hung with last-season’s cut-price merchandise. The catch? That experience means the clothes generally costs a little bit more. TK Maxx can often feel like a jumble sale. And, as with a jumble sale, you could walk away with a treasure or get ripped-off with some trash.
Fashion, ultimately, is a business. A business worth £21bn in the UK alone. The error here is expecting a free or easy ride. If a retailer is selling a frock at a hefty discount, no matter how cheap, rest assured they’re going to be making money on it somewhere and somehow. That, after all, is the whole point.