Planet Lulu isn't for the fainthearted. The company's fashion sample sales in Los Angeles and other cities, where designer names such as Cosabella, Rebecca Taylor, and Oligo Tissew go for 40% to 80% off retail, can induce women to wait in the cold for hours, undress in the aisles, or come to blows over a frilly blouse.
Noah Soltes, Planet Lulu's 40-year-old owner, gave the humble sample sale—basically a way for manufacturers to unload overstocks—a dose of glam by handing out drinks and licorice, and an air of exclusivity by limiting access to those with invitations. Now, though, Planet Lulu does most of its business online. And there, it faces a challenge: how to replicate the frenzied excitement (if not the actual brawls), as well as Soltes's own quixotic, infectious personality. And how to win sales without the dressing rooms, the drinks, and the crowds. Physical crowds, anyway.
It still starts with the illusion of exclusivity. Like the loft events, Lulu's online sales are by invitation only (but anyone can snag an e-vite by signing up at www.planetlulu.com). They're held sporadically and for only a few days at a time. The perception that the discounts are fleeting causes even savvy shoppers to open wide their wallets. "Everybody wants to feel they've been invited to some private event, and they're getting stuff on the cheap," says Rose Apodaca, former West Coast editor of Women's Wear Daily. "I know better and still get sucked in."
Women share Soltes's cheeky, "girly" e-vites the way some men forward raunchy jokes. "I loved his slice-of-life stories," says Christine Buckley, a thirtysomething music executive. She told her friend Julie Golden, who relished shopping for designer duds while "in my pajamas." In fact, Lulu's email list of half a million shoppers was built by existing customers who told two friends (2.2 on average, actually), and so on and so on.
Then there's the sale itself. Planet Lulu's Nab-o-Meter foments urgency by screaming to customers, Home Shopping Network-style, the number of items remaining in stock. It says, "Ohmigod, there's only two left, I have to get one," says Buckley. The result: Each sale draws about 35,000 customers—so many that Lulu's servers constantly crashed in the first two years until they were radically upgraded. And the two-day frenzy typically yields more than $90,000 of sales. With no bloodshed.
A version of this article appeared in the June 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.