retail secrets

J.Crew Employees on What to Buy (and What to Skip)

Photo-Illustration: the Strategist; Photot Getty Images; Products courtesy the retailer

Shopping at J.Crew can trigger a nagging inner voice, even — and maybe especially — for loyalists of the beloved mall stalwart: Should I buy this on-sale tissue turtleneck now, or will it soon be further discounted? Is it really possible that I’m a size 30 in the Toothpick jean and a 27 in the Boyfriend jean? Will this merino wool pill?

J.Crew has gone through many phases, from its preppy mail-order catalogues with the cast of Dawson’s Creek to the chambray-with-sequins era with Jenna Lyons, and it’s continuing to evolve with Olympia Gayot and Noah’s co-founder Brendon Babenzien at the helm. But there are some facts about shopping at J.Crew that have stood the test of time, as well as a whole army of people who have immediate, actually reliable answers to the question of what’s really worth it: retail employees who physically work in the stores.

I say this as a former salesperson at J.Crew. That was admittedly back in 2016, when I finished up a nearly three-year-long gig at its Woodbury Commons location — but I’ve tracked down five current employees to get the kind of insider perspective that can streamline your shopping experience at such a monolith. (Each of these employees are based in outposts in or near New York City, and because they want to keep their jobs, their identities will stay anonymous.) Read on for their tips on what to buy and when, and what to avoid.

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Never buy it full price.

All the associates I spoke with agree that you should never buy anything full price from J.Crew, though you should keep an eagle eye on the sales bin if there’s something you know you want. “Sometimes it can be a week with a style and corporate will move it to sale; sometimes it’s a month,” one told me.

Another takeaway from these employees is that the best time to shop isn’t the tentpole sale event, like Black Friday or Cyber Monday, but the sales event the day after — when the discount often increases by 10 percent or the brand offers shoppers an extra 25 percent off an already very good deal.

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Cashmere is the best bet.

“A lot of people come to our store just for the cashmere,” one employee said, and all five associates I spoke with told me it’s worth the splurge (though, as with everything at J.Crew, it’s often on sale). Many said they even use their own employee discount for it, with one getting 70 percent off.

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But skip the merino wool.

“The merino wool pills kind of fast,” one cashier in Soho told me. “People complain about it all the time.” It also tend to be itchy, which is another reason why the employee suspects that they process the returns of merino-wool sweaters the most. And truthfully, this was probably the item I did the most returns for when I worked there over seven years ago.

If you’re looking for a sweater that’s less expensive than cashmere that’s still high-quality, opt for ones made of cotton. They’re a more reliable — and comfortable — choice, like this cotton fisherman sweater for women or roll-neck sweater for men.

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Men’s sweaters are just … better than women’s.

Multiple associates I spoke to were of the mind that the men’s sweaters are better quality than the women’s versions. One even went so far as to call their quality “phenomenal.” There’s no scientific proof here, but I always thought the men’s sweaters were made better, too, and I bought many in my associate days because they just felt thicker and more focused on material rather than style. Always cut in a vaguely preppy manner, the knitwear tends to be of the sort that never really goes out of style, and many of the most classic women’s styles are available in men’s — including the cashmere crewneck, the cashmere cable knit, the cotton crewneck, even the cotton roll-neck sweater. I’ve found that these days, the men’s options are wider in the shoulders but only marginally wider in the body than the women’s, so you might not even have to size down to get a slimmer fit. But, of course, if you want the borrowed-from-the-boys style, get your regular size — or even go up.

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Stretchy Camerons are the best work pants.

Second to cashmere, work pants — especially the Camerons — were the item recommended most by the associates I consulted. Many employees buy them to wear to their shifts at J.Crew, but customers seem to love them too. This particular style comes in four different cuts and fabric combinations — including high-rise, cropped, and full-length — in work-appropriate black, khaki, and more neutral tones that pair well with a white button-down.

The favorite style among the associates I spoke with was the Cameron in four-season stretch, which is made with that elastane blend that gives them a forgiving fit and relaxed feel without looking sloppy. “They are so comfortable and are a perfect price for a nice set of business pants,” said one associate. Compared to other work pants, they also wash well and maintain their shape, even with a heavy percentage of elastane. The quality and sizing is consistent from season to season, too, so once you find the style of Cameron that you like, you can keep coming back to it without fail — not that you’ll need to, because the employees emphasized that these really do last.

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Don’t trust the pant sizes.

The trick, however, is finding the size and style of pant that actually works for you. Associates say J.Crew’s pants tend to be among the most returned items due to the unpredictability of the sizing — as almost all the associates I spoke to noted, it varies greatly from pair to pair. “It’s difficult to know the fit unless you try them on in the store. And then you may find that one size fits in a certain jean, but it won’t look right with a different style,” one explained.

The men’s jeans seem to be slightly more reliable in terms of sizing. But they’re still returned with some frequency — especially by women who purchased the wrong size for the men in their life, guys who “don’t know their sizes or don’t answer their phones, so they come back the next day to get a different size,” as one associate put it. “These women usually tell me this at the checkout counter sounding pretty frustrated.”

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People are still buying the chinos.

“The chinos are a hit,” said the same employee who’s big on the Camerons. Of course, employees like them because they fall within the dress code of what they can wear to work, but customers like them too because they’re comfortable and wash well. The 484s were popular for men back when I worked at J.Crew, and maybe you can chalk it up to the prep revival we’re experiencing right now, but they’re reportedly still among the most purchased by customers today — followed by the straight-fit 770s and the skinny 250s.

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Stock up on tissue turtlenecks (and only the turtlenecks).

J.Crew Tissue Turtleneck
$23
$23

Tissue turtlenecks flew off shelves during Thanksgiving break — and especially on Black Friday — one associate told us. An excellent base layer for winter dressing that comes in nearly two dozen vibrant colors, neutrals, and seasonal patterns, the lightweight shirt looks flattering on most body types, and it even goes up to a 3X. (It’s also a favorite of Strategist editors, topping our lists of favorite turtlenecks.) One associate told us J.Crew tried to keep the staple going year round by offering a tank version, but that was less of a hit — and is no longer available on its site. Stick to the long-sleeve version, which I can say from experience lasts nearly a decade if treated well.

$23 at J.Crew
Buy
with code: SHOPNOW

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Don’t sleep on the jewelry.

While J.Crew’s clothing skews preppy, the jewelry can be far more trendy — and employees confirmed it gets moved to sale quickly, so you can usually get a good deal. One associate’s go-to gift this past holiday season were made-in-Italy, teardrop-style earrings. Another recommended the layered necklaces, which are reminiscent of what you could find at Mejuri or Gorjana. There are also pieces that look like they came straight from teen-beloved brands such as Ana Luisa, with chunky pearls. But because the jewelry is often discounted it sells out quickly, so don’t dillydally.

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J.Crew Employees on What to Buy (and What to Skip)