Shoppers bag bargains

Demand: It's take-a- number, grab-what-you-can when C-Mart offers designer goods cheap, such as Kate Spade handbags.

April 13, 2001|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

The word went out on the streets about a month ago. A shipment was coming from L.A. Good stuff. Prime stuff. Stuff that can get you really high.

Assuming you're the kind of person who gets a buzz from buying designer goods at 50 percent off.

Prices are always discounted sharply at C-Mart, the salvage store in Forest Hill that has been a Harford County mecca for shoppers for more than a quarter-century. But yesterday, the store put out the kind of stock that starts rumors and draws crowds.

Once, maybe twice a year, C-Mart has this kind of score. A few months ago, it was high-end horse saddles, selling at a fraction of their original price. Workers here remember the furs, which tempted employee Sam Weiner to buy his wife a mink, and the toys, which caused a near-riot before Christmas.

Yesterday, it was 800 pieces from hot handbag designer Kate Spade. Some shoes, but mostly handbags, pieces that range from $200 to $800 in places like Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom.

Now, as often happens, C-Mart could not advertise the brand name. Owner Doug Carton, who bids on salvage lots from insurance companies nationwide, had to negotiate just to keep the labels on the trendy bags. Such haggling is common in his business, where high-end retailers are protective of their designer names. Some require C-Mart to draw a line through tags, so the merchandise cannot be returned. Others insist that the labels be torn out.

But C-Mart could, and did, drop broad hints. On its chalkboard, where it tantalized shoppers for weeks with word of this Los Angeles bonanza. In its e-mails and faxes, which go out weekly to 4,000 shoppers. And in its television ads, new this week, where the bags were on display with their distinctive stitched labels visible.

`Survivor' alliance

By 9 a.m., an hour before the store opened, almost 100 women - and yes, they were all women at that time - were in line, waiting for numbers that would grant them entrance, 30 at a time, into a store-within-the-store created by shelving units.

Jacqueline Ross, a human resources specialist from Baltimore, wasn't sure what she would find when she arrived at 7:40 a.m. She ended up being No. 5 in line. A longtime C-Mart shopper - she was wearing a trench coat and suit purchased at the store -- she conferred on a cell phone with her best friend in Atlanta, taking orders for bags and shoes.

"Those of us who were here early have formed a `Survivor' alliance ... " she began, only to be distracted when it appeared a woman with a higher number was gaining early entrance to the store. "Hey. Hey, hey, hey."

"Don't worry," said Bernadette Burkett, a Washington woman who discovered C-Mart on a business trip. "I've got your back."

Post-disaster profit

Ross figures she began coming to C-Mart about 20 years ago. The store has been around for almost 30 years, first in downtown Bel Air, where it opened in the old 5-and-10. Carton, now 52, put himself through the University of Maryland, College Park selling sweaters from the trunk of his car. After nine months as an accountant - "I hated it" - he applied for a loan from the Small Business Administration.

C-Mart is the name he coined when asked what he wanted to put on the license, and C-Mart it has been ever since. In 1978, the store moved to make room for the new Harford County Courthouse, settling into a warehouse of about 70,000 square feet. The 80 employees pride themselves on keeping it orderly and neat, but C-Mart is not known for its ambience. Even the shopping carts have been salvaged from other stores - Robert Hall, Woolworth.

"As you can see," Carton said with a look around his store, "we keep our overhead low."

He estimates that only 15 stores nationwide specialize in this kind of scavenged inventory, which often comes into the marketplace after natural disasters. The 1994 Northridge earthquake produced so many lots that Carton stayed in California for weeks, bidding on items from 8,000 stores.

But smaller problems create opportunities, too. A sprinkler system may go off, for example, warping a wooden floor and forcing a store to close for repairs. Carton's last big trip was to Buffalo, N.Y., where he bid on a lot of guitars. He's still waiting to see if he'll get those.

Grab, then choose

Yesterday, however, it was all about Kate Spade, whose ladylike bags -- the New York Times once noted they would look at home on Audrey Hepburn's arm - became staggeringly fashionable in the late 1990s, just five years after Spade started her business.

Myrtle Slade, a C-Mart regular who lives nearby, had heard about the sale from her niece in Washington. She told her friend and neighbor, Ann Fitzpatrick, who came along despite the fact that she had never heard of Kate Spade.

"And she knows all the designers," Slade said of her friend.

"I'm not even sure I like 'em," Fitzpatrick said.

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