Consumer IQ

How to Spot the Real Deals at Outlet Malls

Clothing store

You may think of outlet malls as a bargain shopper’s dream, where top-notch brands send their deepest-discounted merchandise. But the fact is, not all deals are equal  — and some aren’t even deals at all.

It’s true that the major retailers send last year’s fashions and unsold gear to their outlet stores, but Max Levitte, founder of the shopping comparison website Cheapism.com, says the trend now is to stock outlet centers with branded goods that were made cheaply – and exclusively – for the outlet stores themselves. “The fact that it’s being sold at an outlet doesn’t necessarily mean that the merchandise is discounted.”

Consumer Reports has compared the price and quality of items sold at outlet stores to those sold in regular retail stores for the past two years. In the latest report, editors found it was difficult to find actual seconds and leftovers at most of the name-brand outlet retailers. The exception was cookware maker Le Creuset, which offered 35% or more off on pots, pans and other products that had small chips.

Clerks at many of the big-brand stores were also open in admitting that most everything in their outlet stores had never made a stop at the standard retail stores beforehand. Some of the tell-tale signs of outlet-specific items are tops with less stitching and made from lighter fabrics, and pants with minimal seams and details. Some outlet-specific apparel even carries an identifying logo stitched into the fabric or label of the garment.

Levitte says manufacturers take shortcuts on outlet-specific merchandise, using plastic instead of leather or skipping the extra stitching. “But most of the time, those tweaks don’t compromise quality. You’re not really sacrificing much, and the savings may be worth it.”

Though retailers will advertise that their outlet prices are as much as 65% off the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, that’s not the case with every product. Consumer Reports researchers found a range from 15% to 61% off an assortment of outlet goods and Levitte says Cheapism’s price-comparison shopping tips average a 30% savings.

“One reason why the discount highlighted on the outlet store’s price tag isn’t a screaming deal is because you’re not comparing apples to apples,” says Levitte. “Though the original suggested retail price on a t-shirt will be marked the same in both the outlet and the regular retail store, that price is irrelevant because those ítems were never sold at retail, they were always meant for outlet stores.”

Sometimes the exact same product is found in both the outlet and retail store – at the exact same price. “One brand told us that it sees outlets as not just a cheap place, but just another venue to display its merchandise,” Levitte says.

So, if you’re looking for deals and steals, what do you do to make sure you’re getting good quality, too?

Levitte offers these tips:

Hit the regular mall first.

Shop department store and mall store sales before going to the outlets, especially when it comes to things like shoes, jeans and leather goods. The selection is bigger at retail malls, and many retail stores will give you a better value when sales and coupon discounts are added in.

Call the outlet store office.

By calling the mall’s management office to ask about special sales, you may find out about deals that aren’t shown online or in newspaper ads. Some malls also offer deals for seniors and the miltary.

Outlet malls have reward member deals, too.

You can sign up to become an outlet rewards customer and get price breaks through exclusive promotions and rewards programs. Premium Outlets offers free VIP Shopper Club registration for exclusive online coupons and e-mail alerts. Tanger Outlets Club offers the same deals for a $10 fee. Also, consider “liking” an outlet mall’s Facebook page for exclusive savings.

Shop at the right time and day.

The early bird gets the best deal – and the freshest merchandise. Avoid the outlets between noon and 3 p.m., when crowds are at their peak. Like airline ticket pricing, outlet shopping is best on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays, when crowds are smaller and deliveries are made.

Shop in reverse.

Off-season goods are typically sold at bargain-basement prices, so shop for summer items in the winter, and vice versa.

Be absolutely sure you want to buy it.

Remember that what you buy at an outlet store may not be returnable and many regular retailers won’t take returns from their outlet stores.

Vanessa Richardson is a freelance writer in San Francisco who writes about small business and personal finance.