Vera, Vera, Vera

This entry isn’t going to be about food, but forgive me. The material is just too good to pass up. As I mentioned in my last post, I spent last Friday touring some very cool stuff in Fort Wayne. Just some of the cool stuff, mind you, there’s way too much to see and do in a single day. For many in our group, the main attraction was a stop at the Vera Bradley outlet sale.

I’d never really explored Fort Wayne until I was sent up on a freelance assignment last year specifically to cover the Vera Bradley outlet sale, and to check out a few other attractions and restaurants as well. I didn’t do a whole lot of research ahead of time — I went in cold, and came out with the warm fuzzies. Fort Wayne is super clean, easy to navigate and holds lots of pretty green space. The city has a vibrant downtown area, tons of kid-friendly stuff to do and an awesome array of restaurants. I was seriously impressed, and all too happy to accept the invite to come up and tour again this year (thanks, Kristen!).

The Vera Bradley sale was the first scheduled stop on our day-long itinerary. After convening at the Holiday Inn up north, we hopped in vans and motored across the street to the Coliseum. Let’s chat about Vera for a minute. Here’s the skinny – the Fort Wayne-headquartered Vera Bradley company manufactures quilted bags of all shapes, sizes and patterns. (They also make accessories, stationery and some other stuff, but the bags are really their bread and butter.) Even if you don’t know the name, I’m sure you’d quickly recognize a Vera Bradley bag if you saw one. They’re EVERYWHERE. College campuses, airports, walking down the street.

My friend Theresa also insists I mention that the Vera Bradley Foundation has donated more than $10 million to breast cancer research, a worthy point.

When it comes to Vera, you’re either a fan or you aren’t. The women who are fans get absolutely hysterical about this stuff. You remember the footage of the Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show from way back when? Women tearing their hair out, screaming, fainting… ok, maybe it’s not quite that extreme. But these women do love their bags. I was not really a fan, until last year. I’d always thought the bags were cute, but not really my style. Little did I know about the sheer range of additional inventory to be considered. Coin purses, pretty little desk sets and notecards, grocery shopping totes, garment bags, curling iron covers, lipstick cases, aprons, pajamas, sunglasses… the list goes on and on. And, of course, the sale present a great opportunity to stock up on items to give as gifts throughout the year. We just sent my mother-in-law in Ireland a birthday bag for the second year in a row, and I’m now the proud owner of two large totes that are perfect for carrying my laptop in when I travel.

The outlet sale takes place each year in April in Fort Wayne, and the day after it ends, women start planning ahead for next year’s event. Over the course of four days, the whole shebang attracts something like 60,000 attendees from 49 states and a handful of foreign countries, pumping several million dollars into the local economy. I believe VB discounts start at 40 percent off the first day and go down incrementally throughout the sale. By Sunday, they’re practically giving the stuff away. Here’s what it looked like last year when I visited on the second day:

Vera Bradley sale 2010, birds eye view

Now lest you think you’re going to come in here and snag all the just-released new styles and patterns at half price, you’re not. (Although there was a tent out front selling some of the new lines.) The sale is meant to move products that have been discontinued or have very minor flaws, but don’t dismay. There’s still PLENTY here to choose from. You enter the expo hall, grab your pink trash bag and off you go. Shoppers troll the aisles, grabbing a wristlet here, a hipster there.

shopping in action, 2011

When you’ve gathered your stash, you retire to the perimeter of the room to sort, discarding anything you don’t want into a waiting bin which, when full, is rolled behind the scenes to be sorted and restocked.

sorting and discarding, 2010

I’d been to the sale in 2010, so I knew what to expect, and found this year’s event much calmer. Last year, I was seriously surprised not to see some catfights break out. This year, shoppers registered ahead for timed slots, keeping the lines down and the hall not quite as chaotic. However, many of these women are still on a mission and trust me, you don’t want to get in their way. They muscle down the aisles armed with shopping lists, on their cell phones taking orders as if they’re in the midst of a bidding war at an auction. God forbid you happen to try to grab the last large duffel bag just as they’re reaching for it at the same time.

I am not what you’d call a power-shopper. I like to get in and get out, so the one-hour we were allotted at the sale was perfect for me. Just enough time to make my way through everything, assemble the items I was after and pay. I still can’t see bringing myself to stand around for hours to get in and check out, but I’d certainly come back again if I can avoid the lines.

some VB loot from 2010 and 2011

One woman in my group posed a serious and thoughtful question about Vera Bradley etiquette — should one be married to the same pattern all the time and required to devote herself to amassing a full collection of items in said pattern, or is it acceptable to mix and match? Some women seem to find a pattern they like and that’s all they buy. I, on the other hand, just wing it by grabbing things here and there as the mood strikes me. I figure I can get away with it by saying I’m just a Vera Bradley beginner and don’t know any better. Vera fans, I’m counting on you to weigh in here and enlighten us as to the proper course of action.

If you’re into Vera, you should definitely try to get here for the sale. Like the Indy 500 or Mardi Gras, it’s the kind of thing everyone should see and experience at least once. Bring your sister, your mom or a couple of friends along for the ride and make a weekend of it — there is tons of stuff to do in Fort Wayne besides the sale to round out your visit. Just book early or you won’t be able to get a hotel room.

There’s an interesting camaraderie that happens among the VB followers. You see women all over town proudly toting their purchases (automatic conversation starters) and swapping war stories about the sale. A couple gals stopped me in the elevator at my hotel to admire one of my new totes, asking questions about the pattern that I’m afraid I couldn’t answer. As I exited and the doors closed behind me, I could hear them snickering to themselves “Rookie!”

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