2/24/2012 2:40 PM ET|
The best deals at outlet malls
Outlets offer some real bargains, but you may not be getting exactly what you think you are. Also: How you might score an even better deal.
Outlet malls may sound like a shopper's delight and you may be able to find deep discounts on coveted brands, but not all deals are equal and some aren't deals at all.
"The fact that it's at an outlet doesn't necessarily mean that the merchandise is cheap," said Max Levitte, co-founder and chief executive of Cheapism, an online site that helps consumers find the best buys on products and services.
To be sure, there is plenty of cut-rate merchandise at the outlet malls, whose typical lineup of retailers could include Gap, Coach, Calvin Klein, Columbia Sports, Le Creuset, Calphalon, Samsonite and, increasingly, relative outlet-newcomers like Kate Spade, Restoration Hardware and L'Occitane.
Much of it might be last year's fashions and unsold merchandise that can't find a buyer no matter how many markdowns there are because of odd colors or sizes. But there is a growing trend to stock outlet centers with branded goods that were made less expensively and exclusively for the outlets.
"In some cases, the manufacturers do take shortcuts. They may replace leather with plastic or not have extra stitching," said Tod Marks, a senior project editor with Consumer Reports who recently finished his second exhaustive comparison of purchases at outlet malls versus regular retail stores for the magazine. "Most of the time, those tweaks don't compromise quality."
In Marks' research, he said it was tough to find seconds and leftovers at most outlet retailers, with the exception of Le Creuset, which offered discounts of 35% or more on cookware with small chips. He said that clerks at several shoe stores, most notably Adidas and Nike, said the outlet malls "no longer sell B-grade stock," but make shoes specifically for the outlets.
"For the most part, you're not really sacrificing much and the savings may be well worth it," he said. He called the quality differences "little things that really aren't going to be deal breakers unless you're the most absolutely finicky person."
Gap and Banana Republic stores are quite open about the difference in merchandise between the regular retail centers and outlet malls. "Virtually everything you see in those stores never saw the light of day in a regular retail stores," Marks said.
Though they carry the Gap brand name, the T-shirts tend to have less stitching and a lighter fabric. Jeans might be plainer and could be missing a seam; sweaters may be shorter with cheaper buttons.
The apparel even has a three-diamond icon stitched into the fabric to designate its outlet destination.
Some retailers, such as Under Armour and Coach, carry a mix of unsold products from regular stores and product made specifically for the outlets, according to the Consumer Reports study.
Among its other findings: Lands' End carries year-old inventory, clearance items and returns. Sunglass Hut also offers both regular and outlet merchandise, though the prices are not necessarily lower than at regular stores.
Harry & David sells a lot of the same things at the outlet stores that you'll find in the catalog or online, though the promotions may differ. And Dress Barn sells exactly the same merchandise but at different price points.
Though retailers often advertise that their outlet prices are as much as 65% off the manufacturers' suggested retail price, that's certainly not the case on every product.
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Stores in outlet malls do carry items specifically made for the outlet mall store. Some carry items that weren't sold in retail stores, and some carry returned items. Their prices are not always cheaper than the retail stores, even for "name brand" items. That's why it's important to shop around and know prices. In some cases, I've even found items priced higher than a regular retail store.
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