With holiday sales behind us, consumers searching for deals may venture to outlet malls for their fashion fix.
Outlet centers in the United States accounted for $24.3 billion in 2012 sales, an increase of $3 billion from 2011, according to Value Retail News, a publication that covers the outlet retail industry.
Mary Hall, founder of therecessionista.com frugal style blog, loves recounting the story of how she bought a Valentino dress for $200 at Last Call by Neiman Marcus, the department store’s outlet, thanks to a sale and an online coupon. "It's very rare to find a Valentino dress anywhere on sale," she says, adding that the dress would have cost a lot more at full retail price.
[Read: Should You Rent Your Next Dress?]
Kelli Bhattacharjee, a Cincinnati mom and the blogger behind freebiefindingmom.com, buys her favorite night cream from a nearby Bare Escentuals outlet. The brand introduced new packaging, and products in the old packaging are now only available through the outlet. "The formulation is the same as the new stuff, but essentially I get it for half off and I just have to deal with the old packaging," she says.
Still, both women caution that not every outlet store item is a steal. While some retailers use outlets to sell excess inventory that didn't sell in their regular stores, others manufacture products specifically for the outlets. Those items might be a different quality than you'd expect from the regular store.
However, outlet stores sometimes offer more selection than department stores. "If you go into a department store, you don't find a lot of one thing," says Rosalyn Hoffman, author of "Bitches on a Budget" and "Smart Mama, Smart Money." "If you go to an outlet, you might find 30 styles of a blouse by one maker, but you have to be a vigilant bargain shopper."
[See: The Frugal Shopper Blog.]
Here are six strategies for smart outlet shopping:
Go early in the week. Shopping at outlets early in the week often helps you avoid crowds and find the best selection. "Monday or Tuesday is usually when they're restocking, and it's not as crowded," Hall says. "You can get some new things put out on the rack before everybody else comes in." Of course, there are also sales galore after a major holiday. "If you really want to get great deals on Christmas items, you can go the day after Christmas, but anticipate a crowd," Bhattacharjee says.
Check the quality. Having grown up with several tailors in her family, Hall says she always checks the seams and the fabric before buying a garment, especially at an outlet. "So much at the outlets is not finished properly," she says. "If you look inside the garment, that lining may not be in straight or it might be very unfinished with zigzag stitching inside a dress. A lot of times, it's just going to unravel." Another telltale sign of careless construction? Plaids or stripes that don't line up at the seams. If you need to alter the piece to wear it, keep looking. Oftentimes, poorly constructed garments don't have much of a seam allowance that a seamstress could let out or won't survive repeated washings.
Bring your smartphone. If you aren't sure about a price, check the retailer's website on your smartphone and compare prices to the regular store, Hall suggests. You might be surprised to discover that the regular store has a similar item for a comparable price. "Just because it's an outlet doesn't mean you're getting a bargain," Hoffman says.
Look for coupons. Before hitting the outlets, check the websites of your favorite outlet brands. Some will send printable or mobile coupons to consumers subscribed to their email list, while others offer coupons on social media sites or their website. In some cases, these coupons can be stacked on top of outlet sales. "Always check the local paper," Hall says. "Social media comes out from whatever the chain is doing, but the [outlet] store itself will place something in the locals when there are big sales coming up."
Check return policies. Before you take out your wallet, check the outlet's return policy, Hoffman suggests. It might not be practical to drive all the way back to an outlet to return something, so if you're driving long distances, make sure you really love an item before you buy it.
If you must buy something, make it useful or fun. After filling up the gas tank and schlepping to an outlet mall, some shoppers feel obligated to buy something to justify the trip. If you fall into that camp, Hoffman suggests buying "something really inexpensive that still satisfies you like a cool pair of socks. If you're going to do it, don't spend a lot or buy something you won't use."