Don't spend money on Coach until you read this

Coach may be a huge handbag conglomerate today, but the company started out in 1941 as a family-run business. By the late '70s, Coach was raking in some $38 million in sales — and it was easy to see why. As Fortune reported in 2014, Coach pretty much dominated the market of "accessible luxury."  Coach handbags were pricey, yes, but not completely unattainable (we're looking at you, Hermès) to the every person.

In 2013, Coach's sales exceeded $5 billion and the handbag maker was named a Fortune 500 company. Things were going great for the label — or so it seemed. When other "accessible luxury" brands like Kate Spade and Michael Kors came onto the scene, Coach's bottom line took an almost instantaneous hit (via Fortune). In 2014, just one year after its unprecedented success, Coach announced it would close 20 percent of its stores.

You may have thought Coach was destined for bankruptcy, but the company is bouncing back. In fact, the label exceeded analysts' expectations in 2018. If you haven't shopped at Coach since their heyday, you may be surprised at how much has changed. Here's everything you need to know before going back to the brand.

Coach was called "McDonald's luxury"

Lew Frankfort, former longtime Coach CEO, was the one who recognized the label's potential in the mostly untapped "accessible luxury" niche. "Where [European luxury brands] would be pricey, we would be affordable," Frankfort explained in an interview with Fortune. "Where they would be snooty, we would be friendly." At the time, rival brands laughed off Coach's foray into the cheaper market and even dubbed the handbag company "McDonald's luxury." Years later, though, it would be Coach having the laugh. After all, the company's sales boomed from around $6 million to over $5 billion in just a few decades' time.

Coach was certainly profiting, but the handbag company's rivals hadn't entirely mischaracterized the brand. According to Fortune, the brand's "aggressive expansion" caused Coach to lose its "focus and prestige." Frankfort expanded the offering of many of the label's low-end handbags, which used cheaper fabric, and utilized factory outlets. After the 2008 recession, over 50 percent of Coach's sales were coming from the label's cheapest bags.

You can now expect higher prices at Coach

Not every change Coach would make would end up boding well for the company. "Coach only emerged a year ago from a major two-year slump ... hurt by too big a focus on promotions, confusion in customers' mind about what was sold at its nicer full-service stores compared to its outlets, and a reputation for always being on sale," reported Fortune in 2017.

Ironically, raising their prices and readopting an "upscale aura" (think less McDonald's, more luxury) helped the label get back on its feet. By the end of 2016, Coach's more expensive handbags ($400 and above) had made up half of their sales. By 2017, the company's best-selling bag was the Rogue — an especially spendy $795. "That's a bag that a year ago, we wouldn't have had permission to sell," Andre Cohen, president of North America and global marketing at Coach, revealed to Fortune. If you haven't bought a bag from the label in some years, you should expect sticker shock, but also better quality.

You can still find budget-friendly Coach bags

Victor Luis, CEO of Coach's parent company Tapestry, told Women's Wear Daily (via StyleCaster) in 2013 that future Coach bags would eventually retail between $2,000 and $5,000, effectively taking the "accessible" out of "accessible luxury." That same year, the Coach + Billy Reid Crocodile Tote was unveiled for — you may want to sit down — $20,000, according to Money Inc. Gulp.

Although that price hike may have worried fans and caused them to think Coach would eventually become completely out of reach, there were still very few über-expensive Coach bags by 2016. As Money Inc. noted, the brand's second-most expensive bag — the Tea Rose Applique Rogue Bag — retailed for $1,500 that year. Now, that wasn't necessarily "cheap," but it wasn't anywhere near $20,000 and it was still far less expensive than Luis promised.

As of this writing, the most expensive bag offered on Coach's official site is the $7,000 Rogue in Alligator. That doesn't mean you have to pay thousands or even hundreds for a Coach bag, though. The brand's bestsellers are upwards of $400, yes, but bags like the the Kitt Messenger Crossbody in Signature Jacquard retail for $140 as of July 2019.

Avoid the Coach outlets

Part of Coach's expansion in the 2010s involved going "all in on factory outlets," Fortune reported. Coach doesn't reveal how much of their sales stem from these stores, but analysts estimated that, by 2013, 60 percent of the brand's earnings were being generated by their outlet locations. While the brand has focused more on luxury in recent years, Coach outlets were still expected to make up the majority of the brand's profits as of 2017.

To the customer, outlets may seem like the best place to get a deal — especially since Coach started narrowing in on higher-end, more expensive bags. But buyer beware. After analyzing an array of brands, including Coach, CBC's Marketplace reported that some outlet items are made with inferior materials of varying quality. Mark Ellwood, a shopping expert and author of Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World, explained, "When you walk into an outlet store, you have to think, this stuff was made to be cheaper."

In a statement (via Marketplace), Coach acknowledged manufacturing products specifically for their outlets, but the brand claims to use the "finest quality leathers and fabrics" — albeit "less embellished" — as they do for non-outlet products.

Coach goes custom

In a 2019 interview with Vogue, Tapestry CEO Victor Luis revealed some of what the label has added since working to improve their image. "There's no doubt consumers want more tailor-made experiences, and part of that is customization and exclusive product," he revealed. "We've worked a lot on the Coach Create concept [a design-it-yourself experience where customers can customize Coach bags, small leather goods, sneakers and outerwear]. We have, definitely more than any other brand in our space, craftsmen across the network that allow customers to have a level of customization that others have a hard time achieving."

Basically a grownup — and luxe — version of Build-a-Bear, Coach Create allows its customers to choose their preferred style, select a color, add embellishments ranging from pins to rivets, and emblazon products with a motif and monogram. According to Coach's official site, Coach Create products only take "an extra 2 to 3 days to ship." 

Buy new Coach bags for a one-year manufacturing warranty

In 2015, Coach released a back-to-basics line: Icon. According to a statement provided to HuffPost at that time, these new bags were created to look "familiar to the millions who grew up with Coach bags." They were also crafted from solid leather, which was a departure from the mixed-material bags the brand had been offering in recent years and more like the products Coach produced back in its early days. 

After Stuart Vevers was hired as creative director in 2013, the company said "he looked to reinvent Coach with a modern luxury point of view" while still "staying true to our roots in leather craft." Two years later, the Icon line was launched and the company began offering a one-year warranty on their leather goods and handbags. The company also began offering repairs at "set fees." As of this writing, Coach continues to stand by their products with a one-year warranty.

Coach's complimentary lifetime cleaning is where it's at

Did you know your Coach bag comes with lifetime cleaning? According to Coach's official site, the brand's Complimentary Lifetime Leather Care and Cleaning service is offered at all Coach retail stores in an effort "to help preserve the beauty of your bag over time." According to the handbag manufacturer, you'll need to call the store to schedule an appointment, but it won't cost you a penny. Coach promises to "professionally clean and condition your bag while you shop." The brand further recommends coming in for a cleaning session once every three months.

If you don't live near a Coach store or prefer DIY cleanings, Coach also sells a leather cleaner and moisturizer. But use with caution. The company revealed that the cleaner shouldn't be used on "sport calf, suede, or hair calf leathers" and the moisturizer shouldn't be used on "buffalo, calfskin, suede, or hair calf leathers." 

Coach sells more than just handbags

Just as Coach's sales were starting to improve, the handbag business as a whole was taking a hit. According to NPD (via Forbes), 2017 sales were down some eight percent. Interestingly, NPD found that, although handbags weren't selling well, women's backpacks and duffel bags had seen an increase in sales by 15 and 17 percent, respectively. That's good news for Coach, though, considering the brand sells both duffles and backpacks. But that's not all the company sells.

As previously highlighted, Coach's customization service, Coach Create, offers customers the ability to customize products like bags, sneakers, small leather goods, and more. In addition to bags and shoes, the famous company also offers men and women plenty to choose from with other merchandise including wallets, sunglasses, belts, and fragrances. You can even accessorize your pet in a matching Coach collar and leash if you so desire. The choice is yours!

Coach is a ready-to-wear "youngster"

Coach has even joined the ready-to-wear scene. Coach had its first fashion show in 2015, Tapestry CEO Victor Luis confirmed to Vogue in 2019. "We are a youngster [in the fashion world], even if we have close to 80 years of history as an accessories brand and as a house of leather in New York." He continued, saying, "It's an endless marathon and you need to have a tremendous amount of joy in looking to innovate and staying at least in pace if not ahead of the consumer." It may be a lot of work, but Luis teased potentially taking Coach shows to other locations in the future.

When asked just how important clothing had become to the brand, Luis explained, "Ready-to-wear in total I would say started as a context builder with the objective of making it a commercially viable business, and I would tell you that today it is a commercially viable business. It is not a loss leader. When we take total ready-to-wear for the company, we are happy with its performance and see it as something that has the opportunity to grow."

Coach now aims to be "modern luxury"

The about-face to luxury Coach has made is nothing short of impressive — both in its newer clothing venture and its staple handbags. And, in Tapestry CEO Victor Luis' opinion, Coach is still an attainable brand. Although Luis hesitates to label Coach as "accessible luxury," as Lew Frankfort once had, he believes Coach is "modern luxury." When speaking with Fortune, Luis explained, " 'Modern' means brands that are inclusive, brands that are more approachable, that are not just based on exterior symbols of status. We're not based on exclusivity at high prices that only a few can afford."

That's not to say Coach has entirely pivoted away from high price tags. Rather, their products simply come in lower than comparable luxury brands. When revealing a Coach leather jacket made in collaboration with Rodarte, Luis explained to Fortune, "These are hand-painted, cut out by hand, and stitched in one at a time." He continued, saying, "In Europe they'd call this haute couture. The reality is that at $3,500, it's a steal." 

Avoid the fake Coach bags

Buying a fake Coach bag may enable you to save some hard-earned cash, but counterfeit bags are a huge problem in the United States. "Counterfeit buyers, tempted by $25 Coach purses and $10 Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses may only see a bargain, but both the U.S. and global economies take a hit as a result," Inc. reported. Citing statistics from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Inc. revealed that the nation is thought to lose between $200 and $250 billion in sales each year due to counterfeiting.

Handbag company Coach, in particular, is serious about doing away with counterfeits. In a Liam Neeson-style statement, Nancy Axilrod, associate general counsel for Coach, told The Baltimore Sun, "To those who traffic in counterfeit goods the message is simple: Coach is looking for you and, once found, will seek the maximum penalties available, including substantial monetary payments." So, it's probably just best to stay away from counterfeit goods.

How to spot a fake Coach product

If you're not very familiar with Coach bags, how can you know if one is fake? In a YouTube video, consignment shop owner Laura Christine listed ways to avoid being duped by a counterfeit. If a bag features Coach's signature Cs on its exterior, the shop owner explained that you're then not going to see a C pattern used in the interior lining on a real Coach product. Another telltale sign can be found in the hardware. "Coach does not necessarily put [their] name on the hardware and, if they do, it's only going to be in a couple spots," she revealed. "It's not going to be on every single piece."

Although Coach says they "do not respond to requests to authenticate product or identify authorized distributors," they themselves provide customers with tips to keep them safe. "Please note that if a deal or price sounds too good to be true, it probably is," Coach's official site states. Additionally, Coach says they "do not sell [their] products at flea markets, through street vendors, or in kiosks in malls." You should be especially cautious of websites that claim to be official or misspell the word "Coach" in its URL.

Coach is becoming more sustainable and inclusive

You may still associate Coach with mass-market fast fashion, but the company has already taken steps toward becoming more sustainable and it continues to take those steps. "When it comes to sustainability, inclusivity, and environmental issues, it comes down to, 'Is it part of your DNA?' We do believe in being a better member of the global community by being aware of how much electricity we're using, what role water plays across organization; those are all areas that we have specific targets to and we print an annual report on," Tapestry CEO Victor Luis divulged in an interview with Vogue.

As the company works to become more sustainable, Coach has also been taking inclusivity seriously. "On the theme of inclusivity, ensuring in this era when issues of gender, race, and sexual orientation come up in the news so often — is it a part of who you are and what you believe?" he mused. "I think definitely, it may be trendy for some organizations, but for us it's something we live and believe."

Coach's Summer Sale is the real deal

Alright, so you've decided you want to pull the trigger and finally buy a Coach bag. Where — and more importantly — when should you start? If you're looking for the steepest discounts (and, uh, who isn't?) Coach's annual online Summer Sale is where it's at. As People reported during the company's 2019 event, the label was offering more than 50 percent off of some of its most popular bags. During their warm weather sales, you can also expect more than just their handbags to be discounted. It's a great time to try out the label's shoes, accessories, and, well, pretty much everything the label has to offer.

Unlike some companies that run sales for a specific period of time, Coach's Summer Sale is a "limited time" event, meaning their summer promotion runs for an unspecified amount of time and there's no telling when a product will run out. Basically, as soon as you find out Coach is running the event, you should get to shopping.