In most cities, outlet stores are shining oases in the desert. Almost literally. They’re usually plunked down outside of major metropolitan areas (where rents are lower), clustered together in a mall with a plethora of food and drink options to create a day-long shopping trip. And while they lure you in with the promise of designer clothes at a discount price, are you really getting a good deal?
As with most things, the answer can be both yes and no. Many outlet stores bet on the fact that you’ll walk in assuming that everything is going to be a great deal, and skip your homework. The truth is, some deals are there, but you may need to check your expectations at the door, ask questions, and do some serious comparison shopping to make sure you’re not overspending.
Here are 6 “catches” to watch out for when outlet shopping (and how to combat brands’ tactics and score a great deal!):
1. The Knockoff Factor: I always assumed that outlet stores carried excess and overstock merchandise from designers. But in reality, much of the clothing and accessories are manufactured specifically for the outlet (SmartMoney reports up to 82% of items). That means a good chance that items are not the same cut or quality as a brand’s department or retail store offerings. While some tags may specify this, in other cases it may be hard to tell the difference. To combat this: Ask a salesperson. Check the item over carefully and evaluate its price and quality independently of what you believe about the brand. Look for these telltale signs clothes are made cheaply. Only purchase items whose price seems like a good deal for the item you’re actually holding in your hand.
2. “MSRP”: Factory outlet finds always look like a great deal when compared with the MSRP displayed on the price tag. A $90 price tag is easier to swallow when the “original price” was $200. View that MSRP with a large grain of salt, as it may be inflated, making the discount seem larger. To combat this: Use your phone to look up the price of the item on the brand’s website, a department store, or Amazon. Or use one of my favorite shopping apps: RedLaser! You can scan the item’s barcode to see what it is selling for online or at nearby stores.
3. Factory Seconds: Many outlets will sell pieces with slight imperfections or defects. Many are marked as such, and as long as you know this, you could get a great deal, but make sure have all the info. To combat this: Ask a salesperson about typical defects, and whether any express or implied warranty still applies. Carefully inspect the item, and evaluate whether the outlet price reflects the defect and will be worth it to you.
4. Last Year’s News: If a store is clearing out overstock items, they may be from a previous season. If that doesn’t bother you, this won’t be a big deal, but remember that the item is likely “worth” less if it’s old news, and thus not as great of a deal. To combat this: again, take the “name brand rose colored glasses” off and look at the item on its own merits. Evaluate whether the outlet price reflects its value to you.
5. Clearance Mess: Stores often deliberately hide their clearance sections in the back and make them crowded and messy. By the time you’ve found it, you may have your arms full and decide it’s not worth it to scour the racks. To combat this: Head for the clearance section first, with open arms. Bring a backpack for your purse so you have both hands free to sort. Try on clearance clothing first, before perusing the racks of shiny, neat promoted products in the front of the store.
6. “Two-for” deals: Some outlets price their wares as a “two-for” deal, requiring you to buy multiples to get the broadcast price. If you only buy one, you often lose out on any savings. To combat this: Check the price tag carefully for every item’s single-purchase price. If you’re lucky, you may have a friend of the same taste who wants to split the deal with you. Otherwise, only purchase the item if you know you need double.
Want to get some good outlet deals?
- Shop off-season goods. These are the most likely to be overstock from a designer’s regular stock, at discount prices.
- Shop the sales. Even outlet stores are always offering discounts off clearance prices, or discounts of select merchandise. These sale-on-top-of-outlet prices can bring you significant deals (but see caveats above about quality of merchandise).
- Sign up for the outlet mall’s email list to score discounts.
- Sign up for the outlet mall’s loyalty program for perks.
- Check for vouchers online to get a coupon booklet from the outlet mall’s service desk. They often give free coupon booklets to shoppers who know to ask for them.