Treasure Hunting, Part I

tjmaxx.jpgThere’s something to be said for paying for an experience; say, first class airline tickets, a meal at a chic restaurant that will stow luggage while you shop (as did Stephanie’s on Newbury, where I took a visiting friend yesterday), or spa services that create a truly calming environment (compared to the bargain nail salon where I bang away on my Blackberry so I can work while getting a pedicure). But when it comes to clothing and accessories, generally speaking, I’m all about getting the best bargain. And that’s why I was intrigued to learn about treasure hunting at T.J. Maxx, Marshalls, and AJWright last week. I’ll address T.J. Maxx and Marshalls here and AJWright in a follow up post, given that these were separate events.
Historically, I’ve always liked the budget-friendly aspect of T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, but I tend to get overwhelmed in these stores. I often do not have the patience for sifting through racks; instead, preferring the boutique experience of going to a limited number of racks (each containing one style) and just poking through to find my size. However, I’m also not wild about big department stores, where in many cases you shop by brand not department (e.g., hunting for jeans in 10 different locations within a department store vs. just going to a single denim section). If I don’t hit the department stores, I tend to go for the general reliability of brands such as J. Crew, Ann Taylor, and Banana Republic. But then there’s the issue of having to take the time to visit all of these different stores and the distinct possibility that you’ll show up to your next event wearing the same outfit as someone else. So in that sense, I like the variety that T.J. Maxx and Marshalls offer.

With the exception of relocating for my and then my husband’s grad school stints, I’ve lived in Boston my whole life and the T.J. Maxx I visit now is the same one I visited periodically as a kid. So I assumed I knew everything I needed to know about T.J. Maxx (and Marshalls by association). But last week at a T.J. Maxx/Marshalls blogger event, I picked up all sorts of interesting nuggets of information that have convinced me that it's worth dosing up on the coffee and heading out for a treasure hunt (or two or three...):

Why are T.J. Maxx and Marshalls often in close proximity to one another? TJX acquired Marshalls some time ago, and since the stores had been functioning relatively well as competition, TJX decided to keep Marshalls in place and stock it with mostly different inventory (more on that below).

What’s the deal? T.J. Maxx and Marshalls are off-price retailers; meaning, they sell at 20-60% less than suggested retail. They can do this because they: 1) skip the frills (mannequins, fixtures, etc.); and 2) can negotiate better prices with designers because they have a “we buy it, we own it” policy where they take responsibility for all inventory purchased (compared to the risk associated with department stores that return stock if it doesn’t sell). Because of this model, they also don’t bother with coupons or special sales; instead focusing on delivering low prices all the time.

What’s new? According to TJX, department stores buy seasonally 6-8 times a year, whereas the TJX team buys weekly. This allows them to be flexible, on trend, and delivering new inventory to stores 3-4 times per week (this shot down my theory that maybe Friday - right before the weekend - was the best day to shop). The stores also are willing to shift their floor layouts to accommodate trends.

What’s in store? What really surprised me was learning that TJX buyers acquire items from designers at the SAME TIME as department stores. Their stock is 85% current season (i.e., same as department store offerings) with less than 15% being non-trend driven items (e.g., hosiery, white towels); 95% of inventory is first quality, with less than 5% being irregular (which is marked as such and typically not noticeably irregular to the consumer, e.g., the original model has 3 ornamental buttons, and the irregular version has 2 ornamental buttons).

T.J. Maxx and Marshalls share the same buying team but do not have a lot of overlap stock; instead focusing on different specialties. T.J. Maxx's specialties include The Runway couture collection (my favorite section to prowl!), beauty and jewelry departments, and more plus size options. Marshalls offers the shoe megashop (a huge collection of family footwear; T.J. Maxx only offers women’s shoes), more men’s options (e.g., suits, coats), and The Cube (a contemporary labels collection).

Both stores offer toys, books, and home items. Food items must follow the same regulations as grocery stores (I've always wondered about the packaged biscotti...). No maternity is currently available.

So the trade off is that you don’t know what T.J. Maxx and Marshalls are going to have in stock (compared to department stores where you can get a general sense of their inventory online) but if you find something you love, you're probably going to get it for considerably less than what you pay for the same item on racks at the department stores.

Doing good. I tend to be drawn towards organizations that are philanthropic and was really pleased to learn that T.J. Maxx just launched a campaign where for every 99 cent reusable bag purchased they will donate one item (e.g., socks, underwear, backpack) to Save The Children. If you don’t need/want a bag, shoppers also can opt to donate $1 to the campaign on checkout.


In addition to all of the above nitty gritty learning, there were a lot of terrific interactive components, such as meeting the children’s merchant team (in addition to fall fashion they showed us a ridiculously cute assortment of Halloween costumes), seeing a family fashion show (click image above to enlarge) where the outfits assembled reflected looks available at T.J. Maxx/Marshalls and department stores, but with serious price differences, touring the handbag and shoe buyer area (overwhelming in a good way), and test shopping both stores. Being something of a brand shopper, it was great to see the wealth of brands that T.J. Maxx and Marshalls offered. Also, having not stepped into a Marshalls for some time, I was truly impressed by the shoe megashop – they had labels such as Michael Kors, Cole Haan, etc. at ridiculously good prices (sometimes around $30-40!). I left T.J. Maxx with a fabulous Nine West cardigan with petal detailing, a deliciously soft long-sleeved Seven For All Mankind tissue tee, and a no-name but very fabulous orange faux croc handbag -- all for about $80. (After a short night of sleep and a busy day I was too exhausted to shop at Marshalls but I plan on visiting the shoe megashop very, very soon!)

As you can gather, this event was extremely eye opening. In particular, now knowing how current their inventory is and how frequently it is replenished, I’m more inclined to get my treasure hunting mojo on and score some serious bargains.