To give you a better idea of how outlets stack up against their retail counterparts, we've broken down the stores we visited by category and compared the quality, price, and selection of each brand's offerings at the outlet mall vs. the traditional mall.
Many shoppers think that clothes purchased from factory outlet stores have manufacturing flaws, are left over from last season, or simply didn't sell in stores. The truth is that very little of the apparel at clothing outlets comes from retail. While manufacturing flaws were common when outlet shopping was first introduced, the supply-chain process is more precise and streamlined today. Because of the large number of outlet stores and the volume of clothes sold through outlets, overstock isn't sufficient for filling outlet shelves. Brands like Gap and Banana Republic, both owned by Gap Inc., manufacture lines specifically to fill this need. Gap differentiates its outlet clothing from retail by printing three small squares on the label; Banana Republic uses three small diamonds.
Knowing that clothing outlets often cut costs in manufacturing so they can sell apparel for lower prices, we examined the construction of some outlet pieces next to their retail counterparts. A women's long-sleeve V-neck tee from the Gap outlet was almost identical to the retail version.
Gap's Favorite Tees, nearly identical from store and outlet.
Both were 100 percent cotton, though the material of the full-price shirt seemed a softer, finer gauge. We also noted differences in the stitching, but the main difference was the length: The mall-bought tee was a few inches longer than the outlet shirt, falling lower on the hip, and the sleeves were about an inch longer. The shirt also sold for $16.50, compared with $19.99 at the Gap outlet. However, the outlet tee was on sale for $6.99 the day we shopped.
A pair of men's boxers from the outlet seemed comparable to a retail pair in terms of fabric quality. Each was made from 100 percent cotton, and the cuts appeared similar. There were some minor stitching differences, and the waistband of the retail pair was wider and better lined. There was also an extra row of reinforcement stitching. The boxers, as well as boxer briefs, sold for $12.50 each at the Gap retail store, or two for $20. At the Gap outlet, similar cotton boxers and boxer briefs had similar prices: $9.99 to $12.99.
For summer, we found few exactly comparable items for women at outlet and retail venues. Short-sleeve cotton tees at the Gap outlet were on sale for $9.99, reduced from $19.99, compared with a starting price of $12.50 for any of three neckline styles for cotton tees at the mall store. The outlet was selling women's cotton scoop-neck tanks, also for $19.99, but with a 50 percent added discount the day we shopped; at the retail store, ribbed tanks started at $12.99. We found khaki capris in the Aubrey cut for $44.99 before the 30 percent discount at the Gap outlet and Hadley shorts in white, coral, black eyelet, and a navy heart print that were priced at $34.99 plus a 30 percent discount. Back at the retail store, cropped zip pants carried a price tag of $59.95 and solid canvas shorts or boyfriend roll-up shorts were fetching $39.95.
Frequent sales, like this one at the Gap outlet,
lower prices even more.
Substantial discounts at the Gap outlet on men's summer clothing yielded huge savings over similar, but not identical, merchandise carried by the retail location. Cargo shorts at the outlet came with 20 percent off the $39.99 price, and a 25 percent reduction was tacked on to $34.99 plaid cotton shorts. At retail, Gap was offering double-pocket cargo shorts for $39.95 and plaid flat-front shorts for $44.95. Basic khakis could be had for $49.99 plus 50 percent off at the outlet compared with $49.95 for classic straight-fit khakis and $36.99 for classic relaxed-fit khakis (in limited colors) at the retail store. Short-sleeve solid polos were marked down to $9.99 from $29.99 at the outlet while hot new pique polos, available only at the retail store, were going for $25.00 each the day we checked prices, but only if you bought two or more.
At Banana Republic, we also looked at merchandise for men and women. The Banana Republic factory store offered attractive savings on men's underwear and socks. Boxers at the outlet were $12.99 a pair compared with $18.50 at retail, and boxer briefs ran $14.99 at the outlet and $19.50 at retail. Full-price men's dress socks were five for $20 at the Banana Republic factory store, less than the cost of two pairs at a retail price of $10.50. In the women's section we found three-packs of socks for $7.99; three pairs cost $15 at retail.
Several sought-after summer items for men were available at the outlet and retail locations. Cotton cargo shorts were $44.99 a pair plus 60 percent off compared with a retail version at $54.50. Banana Republic factory store shoppers could find thick, cotton, striped polos for $36.99 plus 40 percent off, and lighter-weight versions for $34.99 (solid) and $36.99 (striped), plus a price cut of 50 percent. Male patrons of the mall store could choose among pique polos in any of 24 colors for $39.50 each, slub-knit or bold-striped polos for $44.50 each, and luxe-touch solid cotton polos with a starting sale price of $34.99. Men's graphic tees at the outlet were marked down to $9.99 from $26.99, compared with the $34.50 retail versions. Short-sleeve linen button-down shirts sold for $44.99 plus 40 percent off at the Banana Republic factory store, while long-sleeve linen/cotton-blend button-downs cost $69.50 at the mall.
Men's boxers from the Gap.
Our holiday and summer shopping expeditions to Banana Republic also included street clothes for women. Women's button-neck sweaters cost $59.99 at the Banana Republic factory store and hook-closure cardigans with sequin detailing were $69.99. Prices at the regular mall were nearly identical: $59.50 for cable-knit, button-neck crew sweaters and $69.50 for cardigans. Long-sleeve, scoop-neck tees were $29.99 at the factory store and $29.50 at retail.
Summer pickings for women showed some distinctions in both style and pricing between outlet and retail. Banana Republic's factory store stocked women's cotton shorts for $19.99, marked down from $39.99; similar shorts at the retail mall started at $39.50 for rolled styles and $49.50 for those made with a pique cotton weave. Martin-fit straight-leg pants went for $59.99 plus 30 percent off at the outlet, while Martin-fit cuffed cropped pants sold for $79.50 at retail and Martin-fit sleek trousers ranged in price from $69.99 to $79.50, depending on color. A simple linen sheath in white or red-orange at the Banana Republic factory store went for $89.99 plus another 40 percent discount, and a patterned wrap dress in red, black, and khaki was $69.99 plus an additional 50 percent off. At retail, similarly styled cotton sheaths, such as the Lena textured and the Sophia sheath, cost $140.00 and $150.00, respectively.
At first glance, Banana Republic and Gap outlet prices are often only a dollar or two lower -- or even higher -- than retail. However, outlet merchandise is nearly always on sale or promotion. The price you pay is generally 25 percent to 70 percent less than the ticketed cost. For example, men's polo-style shirts were listed for $29.50 at the Gap outlet, the same price as the retail store, but during our holiday shopping trip they were reduced to $12.99. At the same time, they were also 30 percent off at the retail store, bringing the price there to $20.65. If the retail store is having a particularly good sale, you may be able to get a better-quality product for about the same price -- or even cheaper. A women's wool/polyester-blend cardigan sweater listed for $44.95 was half off at the Gap retail store, while 100 percent cotton cardigans went for $39.99 at the outlet.
The quality differences between Gap and Banana Republic outlet and retail clothing seem consistent from season to season. Retail merchandise seemed to incorporate higher-grade fabrics, higher stitch counts, and more complex embellishments; retail styles seemed truer to runway trends. On the other hand, particularly in the case of Banana Republic, the less expensive factory store pieces were mostly machine or hand washable. Much of Banana Republic's retail clothing is dry clean only.
Tommy Bahama, a tropical favorite, is a popular stop for many consumers trolling for summer merchandise. During our visit to the outlet store we recognized pieces we'd actually tried on at retail a year previously. The items we checked out were retail quality, but the discounts didn't match those we had seen at other brand-name outlet stores. The day we shopped, all men's and women's clothing was marked 30 percent off MSRP.
Tommy Bahama specializes in summer
and beach-ready clothing.
We first looked at men's clothing. At the outlet, a signature Tommy Bahama button-down shirt in a style dubbed Fern Notice sold for $82.60 and one called Shake Your Bambooty cost $77.00. Given the absence of a Tommy Bahama retail venue at our mall, we comparison shopped at Nordstrom, which priced Hawaiian shirts with the same styling but different patterns (e.g., Leafing In The Wind and Garden of Hope and Courage) at $118.00. Men's Trinidad shorts were $66.50 at the Tommy Bahama outlet while two styles of Tommy Bahama shorts, Ashore Thing and Flying Fishbone, were tagged $98.00 at Nordstrom. Tommy Bahama Relax tees were going for $29.40 at the outlet, including 30 percent off, and $48.00 on Nordstrom's shelves.
Women's styles by Tommy Bahama were harder to find in the retail department store, so we checked online offerings. At the outlet, we priced Snappy poplin shorts at $54.60, marked down from a $78.00 MSRP; Tommy Bahama's online retail store offered Two Palms and Jet Away Twill 5-inch shorts for $78.00. We discovered a teal-striped cotton knit T-shirt dress for $61.60 and an Acanthus Leaves Dress for $89.60 at the outlet. Online, a short, striped tank dress carried a price of $88.00 and a Supima cotton Hibiscus Floral sundress was $128.00. We did find a few Tommy Bahama women's items on the Nordstrom racks that were reduced by about 30 percent. The Ziggurat Tunic was marked down to $98.90 from $148.00, for example, and the Sand Piper silk easy button-down shirt could be had for $82.90, slashed from $128.00.
In the case of Tommy Bahama, there was no discernible quality difference between outlet and retail goods. Styling was the main difference here, since the outlet goods were a season or two behind what we found on retail racks. That said, we judged Tommy Bahama's style to be more timeless and less trend-dependent, so pieces from a year or two ago didn't seem outdated.