Outlet malls are popular destinations for bargain hunters, but buyers beware — many outlet goods are not great deals these days.
Factory outlets are no longer packed to the rafters with the good bargains that they used to feature, including the previous season’s unsold brand-name clothing, samples and miscut factory seconds with minor defects.
Although outlet malls offer nonclothing items ranging from housewares to furniture — categories that still offer good bargains in many cases — most shoppers are there for the clothes, and clothing designers have increasingly cut clothes in smaller lots or cut only to order, resulting in much less overstock.
When overstock and factory seconds do exist, they now are likely to be sold to discount chains, such as Loehmann’s … Marshalls… Ross Dress for Less… TJ Maxx… and Tuesday Morning, not allocated to factory outlets.
Reason: Clothing company execs consider it safer to unload unsold goods in big lots to discounters, rather than gamble that they will sell well in outlets. Publicly traded clothing companies are particularly anxious to get unsold goods off their books quickly to keep their balance sheets tidy.
To make up for this lack of inventory, many apparel and accessory companies stock their outlet stores with merchandise made specifically for those outlets. Yes, these straight-to-outlet products are cheaper than the makers’ retail store goods — but they also are lower quality. That’s fine for shoppers whose primary goal is to own garments bearing prestigious logos and labels, but not for those who want top quality.
Example: A straight-to-outlet sweater might lack double stitching… or be made from a blend of fibers rather than 100% cashmere.
Overstock apparel that does find its way into outlet malls these days often is not as much of a bargain as it seems. These clothes typically are priced at around 20% below “suggested retail,” but many of these items were offered for well below suggested retail during sales at retail stores.
HOW TO FIND QUALITY MERCHANDISE
It is still possible to get bargains at outlet malls, but only if you shop very carefully.
Note: If you’re not sure where outlet malls are, the Web site OutletBound.com can help you track down names and Web sites of outlet stores and malls.
Here’s how to find quality merchandise…
In many cases, this damage is minor and easily repaired or hidden. Sometimes it’s no different from the normal wear the item would develop after a few uses anyway.
Examples of luggage and cookware outlet stores with the best deals: Samsonite outlets for luggage… Le Creuset outlets for cookware.
Discounts on slightly damaged furniture can be particularly sharp because outlets don’t want these bulky items taking up floor space for long.
Examples of furniture outlet stores with the best deals: Crate & Barrel… Pottery Barn… Ralph Lauren Home.
Examples of shoe outlet stores with the best deals: Puma and Adidas outlets for sneakers… Kenneth Cole and Cole Haan outlets for shoes and boots.
Exception: Handbag maker Coach does feature lower-priced but lower-quality, straight-to-outlet handbags, among other merchandise.
Example: Ann Taylor’s straight-to-outlet garments are clearly marked “Ann Taylor Factory” on the label, but Brooks Brothers’ straight-to-outlet items are identified less clearly as belonging to the company’s “346” product line.
Outlet employees generally will disclose why products are there. If the reason is damage, ask the salesperson if the discount can be increased. The size of the discount on damaged goods typically depends on the degree of damage, which is subjective and thus potentially negotiable.
HOW TO GET THE BEST DEALS
Example: Join Chelsea Premium Outlets’ VIP Club online to receive a free coupon book (www.PremiumOutlets.com).
Example: AARP members qualify for free coupon books featuring savings of up to 20% off at Tanger outlet malls (www.TangerOutlet.com, more than 30 malls in the US). Tanger also offers special savings booklets to AAA members, plus free $5 gift cards to AAA members who visit multiple Tanger malls in a single calendar year.
If you or one of your outlet shopping partners has a smartphone, visit a shopping Web site, such as PriceGrabber.com, Shopzilla.com or ComparisonShopping.com, to compare prices on your selections before heading to the register.
If you don’t have access to a smartphone, do some price research shortly before your outlet mall trip. Visit retail stores or Web sites of those stores and of favorite designers that sell directly to consumers.
Jot down the prices of the products that you are most likely to buy, then bring these notes with you when you go to the outlet mall.