Do Outlet Malls Really Offer Good Deals?

Do Outlet Malls Really Offer Good Deals?
MARYSVILLE - Paying full retail is so yesterday. Shoppers these days want quality merchandise at a discount price. And that's just what outlet stores promise. But can they deliver the goods?

To find out we teamed up with Consumer Reportsmagazine to find out.

These stores promise big discounts and great deals on quality merchandise. Most of the shoppers we spoke to felt that's what they found here.

"Shopping here really helps save a lot of money," one woman shopper told me.

A guy who had just come out of the Nike outlet store seemed pleased. "Great prices, great deals," he said.

But do you really bag the bargains at outlet stores? And more importantly, what about the quality?

To find out, I headed to the Seattle Premium Outlet Center near Marysville and went undercover, shopping with one of the best bargain hunters I know, my wife Debra. We hit store, after store, after store.

At the Restoration Hardware outlet, Deb found paint selling for more than 30% off the retail store price. Normally it's $32 a gallon. Here it was just $19.99. Same paint, just an older style label on the can.

Next stop, the Ralph Lauren outlet, where she found a yellow mesh-knit Polo shirt for $49.99. We found the exact same shirt selling at a big name department store in Seattle for $65.

Then if was off to Borders outlet where many of the best sellers are 1/3 off and some of the overstock specials are amazing. A coffee table book, "Diana, the Portrait" is selling for $31.50 on Amazon. At the outlet store it's just $4.99!

One of the best bargains we found was at Brooks Brothers. Deb got a cotton sweater vest, in last year's color for $23.99. The tag said it had been reduced from $125. And indeed, we went to the Brooks Brothers retail store in Seattle we found the exact same vest - in this year's color - selling for $125.

After 7 hours of shopping, I can honestly say that we found a lot of good deals and a few real steals and some prices that were just OK.

Consumer Reports came to the same conclusion when it surveyed more than 6,000 outlet shoppers for its May issue.

Good, But Not Rock Bottom

A third of the readers we surveyed felt that the outlet prices were good, but they weren't always rock bottom," says Senior Editor Tod Marks, who ran the project.

"On any given day, you could probably beat an outlet price at a boutique or department store when they run a super sale," Marks says.

Of course, at the outlet store you don't have to wait; everything is on sale every day. But just what are they selling?

At J. Jill, most of the things we found were last season's merchandise and overstocks. But there were a few new arrivals.

The Nike Outlet is packed with older style shoes you won't find at Nike Town any more, which is why the prices are so low. They also have cosmetic seconds that have minor imperfections.

I bought a pair of cosmetic second Nike Shocks Lethal. They sell at the full retail stores for $100. But these have a minor blemish you can barely see and cosmetic flaw in the stitching that's almost unnoticeable. I paid $49.99.

Here's something else we learned on our shopping trip: Some outlet stores sell things that were never in a regular retail store.

For instance, some of the clothes at the Nike Outlet were made just to be sold here. Same thing at J. Crew and Brooks Brothers. If you see a Brooks Brothers tag with a 3-4-6 logo, it means the item was made specifically for Brooks Brothers outlet.

"If you are making it especially for the outlet, does it differ in quality from what you'll find in a regular retail store? And the fact is, is does differ," says Tod Marks of Consumer Reports.

That's because the manufacturer needs to cut some corners to keep the price down for the outlet version. Sometimes it's a cheaper material. Sometimes it's less detail in the fit and finish.

For instance, a short-sleeve T-shirt at the Eddie Bauer outlet was $3.50 less than a similar shirt from the Eddie Bauer store. It doesn't have the fancy stitching around the collar and the sleeve. If you can live without that, and want to save a few bucks, the outlet version is the way to go.

We bought one pair at the Gap outlet for $29.99. The other was full retail, $42.50. The more expensive pair is made from slightly better material. It has a button at the top, while outlet model has a hook. There's also a Gap label on the back. The outlet brand doesn't have that. The cheaper pair isn't inferior - just different.

By the way, these outlet stores do run sales, so if you time it right, you can save even more. Many also offer coupons via the Internet. So be sure to check the outlet mall's Web site for coupons.

What about returns? Most outlet stores stores have fairly liberal return policies (although all sales are final at the Restoration Hardware outlet). Just remember, you probably can't bring an unwanted item back to the regular retail store. You'll probably be required to take it to the outlet store. If you don't live near the mall, that would be a major hassle.

Bottom line: based on my experience, an outlet store can be a great palace to shop. You can save money on quality items. You just need to be sure you know exactly what you're buying and how that "discount" price compares to the actual retail price.