A few years back, outlet malls had an almost seedy reputation. They tended to be located far from upscale neighborhoods and generally offered defective or second-rate goods. Nowadays, outlet stores look a lot more like their full retail counterparts. Though outlets may not feature showpiece displays or offer wide selection, they’re popular for one main reason: perceived savings. Nevertheless, shoppers need to know the tricks of the trade.
- Quality may differ. Several studies have shown that over 80% of the products sold at factory outlets were manufactured specifically for those stores. So the blouse that’s on the rack at the outlet store may not be identical to a similar item displayed at the store’s retail establishment or on their website. At the outlet mall, leather in a purse may have been replaced with plastic; sweaters may be shorter and have fewer buttons; T-shirts may be constructed with fewer stitches and lighter fabric. Although these differences in quality may not be a deal breaker for you, it’s always prudent to know what you’re buying.
- How much is that discount, really? Using a marketing technique known as “reference pricing,” bold price tags at the outlet store may advertise a huge discount from an item’s “retail price.” Unfortunately, that “retail price” may have been concocted at the store’s recent management meeting. There’s no guarantee that merchandise at the outlet store was ever listed for that price at a retail establishment.
- Shop sales and promotions. Outlet malls have sales, too, and it makes sense to shop when items are truly discounted. Sign up for an outlet store’s mailing list to be notified about upcoming promotions. And before you buy, make sure the retail store isn’t offering an even bigger discount for your favorite item.
- Shop the off-season. Look for bargains when stores are trying to move their end-of-season inventory. Buy beach apparel in the fall, winter coats in the spring.
- Don’t be afraid to leave empty-handed. Driving a long distance to an outlet mall doesn’t necessarily justify a shopping spree. If it makes sense to buy an item, buy it. If not, wait to shop another day.
- Know the store’s return policy. Retail establishments may not take returns from outlets. Others may require price tags and receipts before accepting returns.
As always, follow the wise consumer’s tried-and-true maxim: buyer beware.