Smart Outlet Shopping

Finance, Home & Family
on April 15, 2001

Everyone loves a bargain. And shopping at outletsstores in which designers or manufacturers bypass the middleman and sell their goods directly to consumersis a great way to save every day on brand-name merchandise.

About 15 percent of merchandise sold at factory stores is irregular or damaged, while the rest generally consist of overstocked, slow-selling, or discontinued items. Additionally, more than half of the companies that own or operate outlets sell merchandise made exclusively for outlet locations. These goods are generally of lesser quality than the companies lines sold in department stores.

About 300 outlet malls are scattered across the United States. Most are located near interstates or tourist destinations, so impromptu shopping sprees have become a popular vacation activity. Indeed, 55 million people visit an outlet mall each year, according to the Travel Industry Association of America.

Not every item is a bargain, cautions Sheila Adkins, public affairs manager of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. But if you shop wisely, you can save money. Consumers should inspect each item carefully, try on all apparel, and ask questions, she suggests. To avoid impulse buying, visit only the stores that are likely to carry items you need, and decide up front what you wantcolor, style, and how much youre willing to spend, Adkins says.

Consider these tips to get a good deal while youre shopping:

lCheck prices at regular stores in advance to determine whats a good buy. Remember, those compare at amounts shown on price tags are high-end numbers suggested by the manufacturer. Many retail stores sell below those prices, too.

lPlan your visit during a mall-wide promotional sale (often coinciding with holidays). Call ahead, check mall websites, or sign up for store mailing lists to get sale schedules.

lAt the customer service center, get a store directory and ask for a coupon book. These books, which give additional percentages off, normally are handed out to tour groups but are free to anyone who asks.

lCheck labels. A cut or marked-through label means the apparel is from the companys retail line but is irregular in some way.

lClearance racks, usually located in the rear of the store, have articles discounted as much as 80 percent.

lAlways ask about the stores return and exchange policy. Some are liberal; some have restrictions. Greatly reduced purchases may be final sales. Many companies allow outlet merchandise to be returned at any of their other outlet or full-retail locations throughout the country.