22 Tips to Shop Like a Pro at an Outlet Mall
bag the best deals with these tips!
I couldn't believe the deals that were piled in my arms! I had stacks of wool gabardine trousers, silk blouses, and cashmere sweaters, each with a price tag of $10 or less. The bare cement floor went on forever in the giant warehouse space, and I covered every inch of it as I searched for more incredible deals.
This was 14 years ago at an Ann Taylor retail outlet store near Fort Lauderdale, where all the clearance items from the regular stores went, and it's what outlets used to be. These days outlet shopping is a different scene. It's far more available and upscale, but it's also not usually the bargain basement prices they used to be.
It's easy to assume that when you shop at the outlets you are getting a great deal, but that isn't necessarily the case. Before you go, it's important to know the difference between the different types of stores there, and the best tips to make the most of your visit. There are three different kinds of stores at an outlet mall: factory stores, retail outlets, and retail stores.
A factory store is a less expensive, lesser quality version of a retail store. They have a completely different clothing line than the retail stores that is designed specifically for the factory store. They often have items that look similar to ones carried in the retail store, but the colors will be from a few seasons ago, the fabric isn't as high thread count or the same materials, the quality of construction and material isn't as good. To be able to offer a similar item at such a discounted price, they have to cut corners somewhere.
Examples of factory stores include J. Crew, GAP, Banana Republic, Coach, Kate Spade, Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren, Loft, Ann Taylor, White House Black Market, and Brooks Brothers. The sign should (but doesn't always) have the word factory on it. The label should also indicate it. Many brands put dots under the name on the label. At the Coach store the serial numbers for factory bags start with an F.
J. Crew retail has a basic crew neck cardigan called the Jackie Cardigan, and the factory store has one that LOOKS identical called the Clare cardigan. You can score the Clare cardigan for at least half the price of the Jackie, but the quality won't be quite the same. Does that mean you shouldn't buy the Clare? Not necessarily. As long as you know the difference, are ok with the quality difference, and can compare the pricing accordingly.
Factory stores like Coach and Kate Spade sometimes have discounted items from the retail store, and if you ask a sales associate, they will point them out. I scored my pink retail purse from a Kate Spade outlet for a bargain. I paid $75 for a $400 retail bag at the factory outlet. I also got an amazing deal on my black moto jacket at the Coach factory store. It pays to (politely) ask the sales associates to point out the retail items they have.
Some factory stores like Express bring back popular items/patterns/colors from previous seasons, but again, they are reproduced in a cheaper fabric, and the construction may not be as nice. I was able to get a Portofino blouse I regretted returning the year before. It is a factory shirt, but I love the pattern so much I was happy to have it at all. I love Express jeans the most, but I never buy them at the factory store because they don't have the same magic.
I do buy things at factory outlets, but my price threshold is different. I'm not willing to pay the same for a J. Crew Factory Charley sweater as I am a J. Crew retail Tippi sweater. Even if the are both 100% merino wool, the thread count for Charley won't be as high. I do have a Charley sweater because it was in a color I love, but I paid less for it than the Tippi sweater I have. Sometimes the style of the line designed for the factory store appeals to me more than the retail store, and I buy at the factory store for that reason. I find the items from the factory stores aren't as durable, and so I only buy if I really love it, and the price is right, but I know it won't last a long.
Retail outlets are my favorite. They are basically clearance centers for the retails stores. Once items become too deeply discounted, or too out of season, they go to the retail outlet store. Some of them are for department stores like Nordstrom Rack (one of my most favorite stores to buy shoes and accessories), Neiman Marcus Last Call, and Saks Off Fifth Avenue. These are great places to score designer goods for deeply discounted prices. These stores also have online stores, which is great if you don't live near one.
Check items carefully because the damaged, defects, and seconds also go here. My friend tried on this awesome sweater yesterday, and at the last minute realized some of the dye had bled from the blue stripes onto the ivory stripes, and that's why it was there.
Now, it's also important to know that not all of the items come from the actual department store. I frequent the Nordstrom Rack store on a regular basis, and they have brands that are specifically purchased for the Rack, and were never sold at Nordstrom. I can recognize these items from experience. They are often the random designers that have a full 4-way stand full of the same item, and the price tags look different. There are also certain brands I know Nordstrom does carry, and I know what the retail prices are, and whether the Rack sale price is a good deal. Paige Jeans, Tory Burch, Sam Edelman, Born, Coach, Vince, yes. Philosophy, Stephen & Co., 14th and Union, random brands filling several racks of the same item? No. They even have what would be considered a factory line of athletic wear. Nordstrom is famous for their Zella athletic line, but at the Rack you almost always find Z by Zella, which is a factory brand produced specifically for the Rack.
Stores like Le Creuset and others mostly sell the defects, seconds, etc., so always check it for damage. It might just be a small imperfection in a spot that isn't noticeable at all, and you got an otherwise perfect item for a fraction of the price.
High end designers like Tory Burch, Chloe, and Burberry also have retail outlet stores. Burberry retail stores don't have sales, and they don't mark things down. If it's time to discount an item, it goes to the outlet instead. It's part of how they maintain the luxury image of the brand. I have scored two Burberry jackets at the outlet. The first was my trench coat, and I got it for 60% off. The other is the blue Ivymore jacket, and I got it for 50% off. They are the exact coats that sold in the retail stores, not a lesser quality reproduction. 50% off at Burberry is still very pricy, but if you love the brand, it's a great place to score a great deal. You aren't likely to find the true brand classics there, and they do not have an online outlet. I also picked up the amazing navy metallic moto jacket at the Elie Tahari retail outlet for half of what it is still selling on the department store websites.
Each of these items is unique. The Burberry trench isn't the classic khaki they are known for, and for me that is a good thing. It has leather sleeves and collar, and zipper accents. The Burberry quilted jacket isn't the classic navy, it's a bolder blue. The navy leather jacket isn't your everyday item. If you are looking for the brand basics, it's not likely to be at the outlet because they tend to sell out at the retail stores first. I love these Jimmy Choo flats I got from Saks Off Fifth for more than half off.
During our shopping trip in Vegas I got some amazing deals on retail items at Tory Burch. Some of the items were 75% off. They were past season items, but I have no problem with that. They were what I wanted, and I got them for a steal.
The designer and department factory stores are often where you will find some defects. A button might be missing, a snag in a sweater, loose sequins, etc., but they are sometimes easy fixes.
Some stores at the outlet malls aren't outlets of any kind. They are regular stores who want to take advantage of the traffic of an outlet mall. It's very deceiving, and I think they should be required to label themselves accordingly. I went into the Under Armour store at our local outlet looking for ski base layer for the kids. As I was looking through the racks, the prices were higher than what I expected, so I asked if this was a factory or retail outlet. None of the above. It was a regular store, and I left empty-handed. I bet a lot of people go in thinking they are getting a better deal because they assume it's an outlet, and therefore less expensive than a retail store.
We automatically assume that an outlet of any kind is going to be a better deal, and looking at the prices at Under Armour I assumed that if these are outlet prices, the retail prices are higher. It's a mind game. If you think the Coach factory store is a retail store, you think you are getting away with highway robbery, but you're not. Factory bags aren't the same quality as retail bags, and it's important to take that into consideration when looking at the prices.
22 Tips to shop at an outlet mall
Make a plan. These places are often huge with multiple annexes. What are your favorite stores? Which ones do you want to prioritize? Get a map from the welcome desk and plot a course. I like to hit the big stores, like a Nordstrom Rack or Saks Off 5th, first. I find them too overwhelming after I've been shopping for a while already.
Dress for the day. I always choose comfortable shoes, and clothes that are easy to take on and off. That means no button up with a sweater and jacket. That is a pain. I like large necklines or button ups so I don't mess up my hair and make up with the constant on and off. If I want a sweater, I choose a cardigan that I can take off with the button up and treat it like one item. I love slip on shoes that are comfortable so I don't have to lace and relace or quit shopping because my feet hurt.
Ask what kind of store it is. Associates don't often know the difference, so ask if their inventory comes from the retail stores or if they have their own line. Factory stores often have Factory in the name, but not always. I didn't know the Kate Spade outlet store was a factory store until I asked.
Don't buy anything at a factory outlet unless it's at least 40% off, because that is the normal everyday discount. It's a numbers game. They mark up the retail price and then discount it to the real price so you think you are getting a good deal. 40% off is the real full price at most factory outlet stores, in my opinion. That's where we start. So that factory Clare cardigan that has a retail price tag of $54.50 (and the cotton version of the Jackie cardigan at the retail store is $65) has their all-the-time 30% off sale making it about $38, and you think you are making out like a bandit. But $38 is the real full price for the quality of the Clare cardigan, because the store is ALWAYS ON SALE. For it to be a good deal, it needs to be on sale for less than that.
Check the return policy at outlet stores. Last year I bought a shirt at the Max Azria store. It was the end of the night, I was exhausted and bought it thinking I'd try it on at the hotel and decide when I wasn't so tired. The next day I wanted to return it, and they told me they had a no returns policy. Many people (including my friend who was with me) would have left with a $40 shirt they didn't like, but I spoke with the manager and said no one told me it was final sale, and I would never have bought it if it were, so I wanted a refund. I was polite but firm, and my friend confirmed to the manager that no one mentioned the policy, so I was able to return the shirt. Always ask before you buy.
Look online before you buy. That's the magic of the smart phone, right? Sometimes the item is available online for less, or there might be a coupon. Sometimes the equivalent item is on a better sale at the retail store (sometimes you can score the Jackie cardigan for the sale price of the Clare cardigan and get better quality).
Shop from a list. This could be a whole post on its own, but knowing what you want before you go will help you avoid the good deal trap, make great purchases and sift through everything much more quickly. When we went to the outlets in Vegas, I had my list, and as we went to each store I could ask if they had these items. I was very specific. "Do you have a silver crossbody bag?" It saved a lot of time and energy, and helped avoid impulse purchases of the wrong thing.
Shop the holiday weekends. Just like regular stores, holiday weekends can be the best time for deals. Every year on Black Friday I go to the Columbia outlet and get whatever ski gear our kids need for the year. I get great deals on coats, base layer, boots, gloves and more. When you are outfitting a family of 8 to ski, it's worth it to me to hit that one store on the worst shopping day of the year.
Shop for out of season items. I love to look for winter items in January and February when they are being clearanced. I picked up all three of the above jackets in February and March when coats are marked down the most.
You usually can't return outlet items at a retail store. They are completely different entities and brands. The only sort of exception to this rule I know of is you can return regular Nordstrom items at a Nordstrom Rack.
Go first thing in the morning. When we were in Vegas we got there when the outlet opened, and it was E-M-P-T-Y. When we left that afternoon people were circling the parking garage like hawks and fighting over spaces. It was packed. You will also get the best selection in the morning.
Don't feel like you have to buy because you came all this way. A lot of outlets are out in the boonies, and when you drive all that distance, you feel like your trip is wasted if you don't buy something. Don't be afraid to leave empty-handed.
Don't get sucked into the good deal. It's so easy to buy things because they are a good deal! This happens to me, and I'm usually able to pull myself out of the euphoria of a bargain, reevaluate my items, what I'm buying, how it fits in with my list, my style, and my wardrobe, what my budget is, and whether it will be worn. It can especially be tempting when it's a designer item. I almost fell prey at Tory Burch with the Miller sandal. They were cobalt and turquoise blue, my favorite colors, and they were half off! But the truth is, I don't like circles, and having a giant circle on top of my foot didn't make me happy. I was so tempted by the color combo, the price, and honestly, the brand. I really like Tory Burch, and the idea of getting one of her most popular items at such a great price made me want to buy them. In fact I did get them. Then that night as a reevaluated my purchases, I realized I had succumbed to the mental trap of getting a popular designer item at such a discount. I returned them the next day because they aren't my style. Phew!
Don't believe the retail price on the tag. As we discussed above, no one pays the retail price at an outlet. It's a mental game. Start at about 40% off the marked retail price and consider that to be full price.
Check quality carefully. Outlet prices are often a reflection of the quality, so inspect it and make sure you are ok with it.
Read labels. Sweaters will often be acrylic instead of wool or cashmere. Acrylic pills horribly, and the quality isn't anywhere near as good as cashmere or wool, so I typically avoid it. Polyester and other synthetic fibers will be added to the fabrics to drop costs. Jackets, pants and skirts may not be lined. Leather buttons will be replaced with plastic, etc.
Be familiar with retail prices. That way you will understand what is really a good deal. If you aren't sure, pull out your phone and check online.
There are coupons, and sometimes they are worth it. The retail store and the factory store don't usually honor each other's coupons, so sign up for the outlet store's email list and receive coupons. You can also stop by the outlet mall main office to get a coupon book. A lot of times there is a person standing at the front of the store handing out coupons, but those aren't really coupons. Just an advertising gimmick.
Just carry stuff around. I don't let the salespeople take stuff from me and put it behind the counter. I carry it around and often I find I'm not as excited about it after a few laps around the store as I was when I first saw it.
If you find something you love but they don't have your size, see if they can find it at another location and order it for you. That's how I got the trench. Actually, the sales associate wouldn't help me, so I called around and located it, but they wouldn't take a credit card over the phone, so my friend's mom went to the store near her, paid for it and I sent her a check. I know I'm crazy.
Take a break and get some food! No one makes good choices when they are hungry or tired.
Ask yourself: if this were [whatever the price is] and you'd never heard of the brand, would you buy it? Sometimes I'm seduced by a good deal on a high-end brand.
Take pictures of items you like, then make purchases at the end of the day. It can be easy to start buying and buying, get caught up in the deals, and overspend. I often take pictures of the things I like (including me trying it on), ask the store to hold them, and at the end of the day, I review the pictures and decide what to go back and get. It avoids the extra trouble of returning items you change your mind about. With the expensive items I showed above, I took pictures, went back and visited them, and purchased on the last day, or online after I got home because after that much time I was still thinking of them, still excited about them.
Is it worth it to shop at the outlets?
It can be. I shop there all the time, but I know what I'm getting, what's a good deal, and what I'm willing to pay. I'm not always getting a better deal, but I understand whether I am, and when I'm ok with it.
Was any of this information new to you? Do you shop at the outlets? Have you scored big? What are your best tips? Let's chat about it in the comments below.
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