Cheap T-shirts from Walmart, Target, Old Navy, JC Penney, and the Gap were put through multiple wash cycles and a meticulous comparison. See where they rank.
Outlet Shopping vs. Retail
Bargain shoppers may be concerned about price, but they still appreciate name-brand products and enjoy staying on top of trends. Outlet shopping malls woo budget buyers with the promise of designer labels at affordable prices. To determine whether the lure actually snares savings for frugal consumers, we compared outlet shopping vs. retail. Our foray during the holiday season netted close to 30 percent off regular mall prices by shopping the outlets. As we prepared for the upcoming summer splash, we found savings worth nearly 35 percent at the outlet mall, even after retail discounts were factored in.
Outlet malls offer discounts to shoppers looking for bargains on brand-name goods, though often not the rock-bottom prices consumers might expect. Most factory stores are well-run and organized, with a high-end feel and knowledgeable salespeople. Outlet merchandise is sometimes lesser quality than retail but lives up to each brand's standards. Shoppers warn that outlet malls can be crowded and chaotic, food choices are often subpar, and the common open-air format leaves customers exposed to the elements. Proponents deem outlet malls a great place to stock up on basics and find occasional hidden treasures.
Retail malls offer the latest fashions, a wider selection, and a more convenient shopping experience. Of course, all that comes at a price. Full-cost retail goods are usually more expensive than what shoppers can find at outlets, partly because of the higher overhead associated with retail malls. Retail merchandise is frequently trendier and slightly higher quality than outlet stock. Some shoppers can't see paying full price for the same brands found at outlet malls. Others advise that buying retail offers greater choice and you can match or beat outlet prices by shopping the sales.
Outlet Shopping vs. Retail: A Shopper's Guide
We started the holiday shopping by compiling a list. We conducted our research ahead of the holidays, so we selected items that would make good gifts for a variety of recipients: a handbag, iPhone case, and Le Creuset pot for a wife, mother, or sister; a polo-style shirt, sweater, and wallet for a husband, father, or brother; PJs for a niece or nephew; socks and underwear for stocking stuffers; hand soap and lotion for friends or hostess gifts; and a carry-on suitcase for a gift or for holiday travel.
For summer, we focused on warm-weather merchandise. This list included summer staples like T-shirts and shorts, light button-down shirts and pants, running apparel, hiking gear, swimsuits, sunglasses, sandals and flip-flops, outdoor cushions, and assorted items fit for balmier times.
Each shopping expedition involved a visit to the closest outlet mall, where we had 110 stores to choose from. We found the holiday items we were looking for at Gap, Banana Republic, Gymboree, Carter's, Kate Spade, Coach, Restoration Hardware, L'Occitane, Samsonite, Le Creuset, and Calphalon. For the summer goods, we returned to Gap, Banana Republic, and Restoration Hardware, and also stopped by Tommy Bahama, Quicksilver, Nine West, Columbia, Nike, and Sunglass Hut. At each outlet, we took note of not only the prices but also the quality of the items on display. The outlets we visited were generally well-organized and had a high-end feel. Salespeople were friendly, helpful, and well-informed about their products. We chatted them up about where their stock originates and asked about return policies.
Purses at the Coach outlet.
Then we headed over to the local mall for a similar walkthrough at each outlet's retail counterpart. For labels without a local retail presence (such as Tommy Bahama, Quiksilver, Nike, and Columbia), we visited Nordstrom, Macy's, PacSun, and Foot Locker and/or sorted through the brand's online site. The shopping experience at the retail mall was a bit different from the outlet mall. For one thing, the traditional mall was a fully covered, indoor space. The outlet mall, by contrast, had open-air corridors with shops on each side, a setup that lowers the cost of heating, cooling, and maintenance. Outlet malls also tend to be developed in out-of-the-way locations, so outlet chains pay lower occupancy charges than stores in regular shopping malls. Prices often reflect these lower operating costs.
At the outlet mall, the items on our holiday shopping list came to a grand total of $1,240.15, including sale prices and excluding taxes, which vary from state to state; the bottom line for our summer shopping list settled at $2,906.43, after discounts and before taxes. Granted, sale prices also vary day-to-day and mall-to-mall, but we factored them in because seemingly constant sales and promotions account for much of the savings from outlet shopping. Similar items from the retail mall set us back $1,756.62 for holiday goods and $4,453.41 for summer fare, also after figuring in sale prices but before tax. That means shopping at the outlets shaved $1,546.98 off the summer total (for savings of nearly 35 percent over retail) and $516.47 off our holiday total (about 30 percent savings). When we compared an even larger selection of merchandise suitable for holiday gift-giving that we found at the outlets and the regular mall (see chart), the percentage was almost exactly the same. In all cases, the savings were less than the average of 38 percent reported by the trade publication Value Retail News, based on an annual survey of outlet executives, but sizable nonetheless.
A computer briefcase from the Tumi outlet.
Price obviously isn't the only consideration in comparing an outlet mall to retail, however. Sure, outlet shopping will save you money, but will it buy you value? The answer is yes, it can, but you have to do your research if you want to spot diamonds in the rough.
First, understand what you are buying. Where does the merchandise come from? Is it offered at a discounted price because it's lower quality -- which might be OK, if the price is right -- or because it's simply a season behind? Next, try to get a sense of what an item is really worth. Familiarize yourself with the prices of retail merchandise so you can spot a bargain when you see one. Don't be misled by the manufacturer's suggested retail price, or MSRP, listed on the tag or rush into a purchase because of a limited-time discount. Finally, leverage coupons to get the best price, and always ask about the return policy before you buy.
Read on for a rundown of what to expect from outlet shopping, and some tips to help you find the best deals.Back to top »
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In the contest between knockoffs and brand-name products, the cheaper imitations win on price and sometimes keep up on style and quality.