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It's a Jungle Out There, So Savvy Buyers Let Elysa Lazar Guide Them on Their Shopping Safaris

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Take it from Elysa Lazar: Sample sales can be a blood sport. “Even women who are very staid can become crazy lunatics,” says Lazar, a black-belt master in the bargain-hunting arts. “If you try on a coat and then set it down for a minute, they’ll pounce and say, ‘Excuse me, are you buying that?’ And if you say, ‘I haven’t decided yet,’ they’ll become vicious. You can’t be prissy either. There are no dressing rooms, so you strip where you can and do what you have to do.”

Sample sales, for the uninitiated, take place when fashion designers and manufacturers find themselves overstocked because of order cancellations, delivery foul-ups or other problems. One way to sell the surplus is to slice the price and peddle it directly to the public, usually from a big room full of boxes and racks in Manhattan’s garment district. “It’s a challenge,” says Lazar, 34, of the bargain bin square-offs that often ensue. “If you walk away paying $150 for something that costs $600 in the store, you’ve won.”

Trouble is, the would-be bargain hunter first has to know the where, when and how (usually cash only) of the sale. Enter Lazar, who for almost three years now has published a handy purse-size guide called The S&B Report (for “sales and bargains”) that lists anywhere from 75 to 200 name brand sell-offs each month. Women’s fashions bearing labels of well-known designers like Oscar de la Renta, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Perry Ellis dominate S&B’s pages (recently $500 suits by the latter were going for $250), but Lazar also includes listings for children’s and men’s clothing, jewelry, wigs, belts, furs, china, silver, furniture, lamps and even household appliances.

Columnist Joyce Brothers, Kitty Dukakis and TV’s Sally Jessy Raphaël are among S&B’s 7,000 or so subscribers at $40 a year (eschewing the pirated, duplicating machine versions that make the rounds). Designers and manufacturers, for their part, pay Lazar $175 to get word of the sales to their fans, some of whom come from as far as Puerto Rico and L.A. to observe the 11th Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Buy at Retail.

That, of course, has been Lazar’s credo since she began “doing the malls” as a teenager in suburban Plainview, N.Y. Her father is an electronics company executive, her mother a housewife who knew the value of shopping strategy. “She taught me patience,” says Lazar. “Even when you went to the store and saw something you loved, you waited. A week later the item would be marked down. Everything gets marked down.”

Between shopping sprees, Lazar made her way through the State University of New York (in a town called Purchase, appropriately), moved to Manhattan and became a Citibank trainee while pursuing an MBA at Columbia. She rose to a bank vice-presidency in six years, switched to a Wall Street consulting firm, then experienced the failure of her four-year marriage to music historian Ted (Showtime at the Apollo) Fox, thanks to her frequent absences because of business.

Four years ago Lazar “hit 30 and decided I wanted to do something else with my life.” Returning to her first love—shopping—she founded The S&B Report with $10,000 in savings. It now grosses $400,000 a year, has seven full-time staffers, and Lazar plans to expand even further with an L.A. edition. Meantime, she appears regularly on the syndicated Live With Regis & Kathie Lee show, turns up three times a week on cable TV and will soon be a weekly guest on Joan Lunden’s new syndicated show, Everyday.

All that entrepreneurial energy has brought its rewards, including a spacious, one-bedroom Manhattan apartment filled with Baccarat crystal and other finery (acquired at bargain prices, natch). She works out at least three times a week with a personal trainer (“I started before it was the yuppie thing to do”), limits her dating to friends in the fashion industry and says she has no aspirations to become a great homemaker. Indeed, the one type of store to which she is a total stranger is the kind that sells groceries. “Milk and juice I just don’t know about,” says the shopping specialist. “If someone told me that they go for $5 a quart, I’d probably say, hey, that’s a good price.”