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5 tips to score deals at online outlet stores

More outlets are going online. What savvy shoppers need to know.

By Karen Datko Sep 9, 2010 11:00AM

This Deal of the Day comes from Kelli B. Grant at partner site SmartMoney.


Finding deals at outlets used to require serious effort: a lengthy drive to the nearest outlet mall, followed by hours spent combing through racks, item by item, and waiting in long lines behind like-minded bargain hunters. Now, it often takes just a few clicks from home.

Camera manufacturer Nikon launched an online outlet store last week, and J. Crew plans to make its outlet store clothing available online this month. The two join a host of retailers with an online outlet presence, including J.C. Penney, Crate & Barrel, Dell, Zales, Sears and The Disney Store.


Online outlets are one of the few growth opportunities available to retailers as shoppers cut back spending, says Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a national retail consulting firm and investment bank based in New York. Bargain hunters are visiting outlet malls in droves and hunting for sales online, so combining the two makes sense, he says.


Although it's convenient to shop outlets online, the move doesn't necessarily mean more of the eye-popping deals brick-and-mortar outlet stores are known for, says Linda Arroz, a stylist based in Los Angeles. Retailers and designers have scaled back inventory amid slow sales, which leaves less overstock to send to discounters such as TJ Maxx. It also means there's less to send back to designers for online flash sales or to spread out among outlet stores. "There isn't that flow of goods anymore," Arroz says.


Muddying things further, much of what's available are full-priced outlet-only lines, not deeply discounted one-offs from a season or two ago, a difference that may be tough to distinguish when shopping online.


Here's how to shop cautiously at online and mall outlets, and separate the deals from the duds:


Plan for your needs. "Prices at outlet malls can encourage some seriously wanton spending," says Michelle Madhok, chief executive of fashion site Prepare a list of items to look for before you start shopping, and don't deviate. Comb through your closet to spot wardrobe holes, narrow down camera models by checking online reviews, and measure the space where you plan to put that ottoman.


Shop sales. Like their mainstream counterparts, outlet stores offer sales near holidays and toward the end of seasons, Arroz says. Check the websites for the outlet store itself and the outlet mall for extra discounts. Outlet mall developer Chelsea Premium Outlets offers a free VIP Club with in-mall coupon booklets, exclusive online coupons and sale notifications. The Disney Store's Web outlet recently offered a code for free shipping on all orders with no minimum required.

Compare prices. There are so many fashion sales this fall that even a big sale might not be the best deal, says Cheryl Holland Bridges, director of the Center for Retailing Studies at Texas A&M University. Online shoppers can easily compare styles and prices of outlet items against those currently in stores. In-store shoppers can use their smart phones for a similar search.


Try on everything. Outlet-only lines often have different cuts, fits and fabrics than a store's primary line, Madhok says. "Treat it like you're shopping a new brand," she says. In stores, try on everything. Online, start with pieces where you can easily gauge the size -- outlet-only lines may have different sizing from the regular brand, she says. Check for damage or signs of wear, too. (For example, the Zales outlet notes which pieces are pre-owned.)


Review the return policy. "Always look at the return policy before you buy," Arroz says. Stores that accept returns may do so for store credit only -- and you must make those returns at the outlet and not the regular store. Online, you may have to pay for return shipping. At J.C. Penney, for example, items from the online outlet must be returned within 30 days. In comparison, regular store merchandise has a return period of 90 days. In either case, the customer is responsible for the return postage.


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