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…

  • Focus on nonclothing items. Clothes get most of the attention at outlet malls, but these days, the big outlet savings typically are on nonclothing merchandise, including furniture, housewares and luggage. Nonclothing outlet stores are far less likely to be stocked with lower-quality, straight-to-outlet merchandise. And the items often are marked down by 30% or more — occasionally much more — because of nicks, chips, dents and scratches.
  • 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.

  • Shop for shoes. Shoes are less likely to be straight-to-outlet, lower-quality goods, and they often are there because of small scuffs that are hardly noticeable.
  • 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.

  • Be aware that the biggest names can yield the best savings. Elite brands, such as Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana and Gucci, generally do not create lower-quality outlet-only product lines for fear that these lesser products could sully their gold-plated images. Thus the outlet stores of the highest-end designers tend to be stocked with actual top-quality discounted overstock.
  • Exception: Handbag maker Coach does feature lower-priced but lower-quality, straight-to-outlet handbags, among other merchandise.

  • Ask the way to the discount rack. Most outlet stores still have an area filled with major markdowns of 40% or more, but it might be hidden away in a distant corner of the store. This merchandise often includes miscut or damaged products, so examine these goods particularly carefully.
  • Determine why items are in the outlet before buying. Is this something made specifically for the outlet? Is there hard-to-spot damage? Some outlets note this clearly on merchandise, but not all.
  • 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.

  • Try on outlet clothes before buying. Garments sometimes wind up in outlets because they’ve been miscut or mislabeled as the wrong size. Don’t wait until you’re home to find out that your purchases don’t fit. Even if the outlet allows returns — not all do — the outlet mall might be too far away for a second visit.
  • HOW TO GET THE BEST DEALS

  • Hunt down outlet mall and store coupons. Visit the Web site and Facebook page of the outlet mall you plan to go to and the Web sites of the designers whose stores you are likely to visit there. You might find coupons providing savings of as much as 15% to 20% off regular outlet prices.
  • Example: Join Chelsea Premium Outlets’ VIP Club online to receive a free coupon book (www.PremiumOutlets.com).

  • Visit welcome centers at outlet malls as soon as you arrive. Valuable coupon books often are available there, either for free or for a small fee, typically less than $5. Ask if there are special discounts for members of groups you belong to, such as AAA or AARP.
  • 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.

  • Check the retail price before paying the outlet price. Perhaps you could find a better price on the same item at a discount retailer or even at a regular retail store when it’s having a big sale. Or perhaps you could purchase a version of the same garment made from better fabric in a retail store or online for only a few dollars more — and have a wider choice of sizes and colors.
  • 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.

  • Shop outlet malls when retail stores have sales. Factory outlets typically have their biggest sales at the same times of year that retail stores do — the weekends of Memorial Day, Labor Day, President’s Day, Columbus Day, around Thanksgiving and the week after Christmas.