Get Your Best Deal When Outlet Shopping

What’s the best thing about outlet shopping? Amazing sales, deep discounts and significant savings available all in one place! The ‘art’ of shopping is loved by many, and it can be as much a spectator sport (for utilitarian shoppers) or a full-blown hobby. But it all comes down to the “deal.”

In recent years, online shopping has reshaped the retail landscape—with many malls closing or being repurposed for different uses. But outlet centers continue to thrive. Driven by shoppers looking for discounted goods, owners of outlet centers are posting strong results in an otherwise bleak retail environment.

With the decline of traditional shopping malls, there is no shortage of outlets. There are roughly 200 U.S. outlet centers with assets worth a collective $50 billion, according to estimates from real-estate research firm Green Street Advisors.

But what’s the difference? A mall is a mall is a mall, right? Not so fast. Although outlet malls may LOOK something like normal retail malls, they are not as upscale, have fewer amenities and are typically built with outside access to all of the stores. Over the years, they have evolved from no-frills warehouse-type stores offering seconds or slightly-defective items—to stores offering brand new merchandise, sometimes of a lower quality but still carrying the brand names people seek. Many retailers even sell items that are specifically made for their outlet stores.

How do you tell if you’re actually getting a great deal at an outlet mall? Here are a few tips to keep in mind before you head out on your outlet shopping adventure to make sure you’re getting the best deals:

Know the outlet. Do your homework on the outlet center before you go so that you know what stores are available to plan your day. You can also get an idea of what types of goods may be available and print or download any coupons. Some outlets even offer outlet club memberships, where you can join up to score points for purchases, receive exclusive coupons savings and be alerted to special sales.

Check prices online. What are you looking for and what is the retail price? A quick Google search might give you an idea if you’re better off shopping online or going to the outlet mall. Outlet store operators know that shoppers are looking for deep discounts and may tag items with a high “regular price”—only to mark them down. Even though the sign says 65% off, it is unlikely a serious shopper would ever have paid the retail price anyway. Before you snatch up that scarf or purse, try scanning the bar code with a smartphone shopping app—such as Shop Savvy or RedLaser. Here you can check prices for the store you’re in, nearby retail stores, and other online retailers to make sure you’re getting the best deal. The items you’re looking for may actually be cheaper at the retail store when you factor in sales and coupons.

Is the quality the same? When outlet bargain hunting, consider the quality you’re looking for—is the item ‘exactly’ the same as the retail version? Some outlet stores manufacture lower quality goods with cheaper materials to justify the lower price.

Shop closer to home. Outlets are often placed in faraway locations. If you’re 90 miles away from the outlet, you may be tempted to buy everything you see to make the trip worthwhile, or because you probably won’t return any time soon. If it’s within 30 miles, you may be inclined to think twice on some items before you purchase. So, don’t be afraid to walk away.

Don’t shy away from major sale weekends. If you don’t mind crowds and traffic, you may score some of the best deals yet on the major shopping holidays—like Black Friday, Memorial Day Weekend and the Fourth of July. There’s stiff competition with regular shopping malls, so the outlets tend to discount even more.

Use coupons with caution. Nothing beats a coupon, but sometimes it will only be for the Gap Outlet Store, for example, and not the regular Gap store and vice versa. Read the fine print, and don’t be afraid to ask!

Hit the clearance rack. Like most retail stores, outlets are designed with higher-priced merchandise up front, and clearance racks towards the back of the store in the corners. Your best deal might require a few extra steps—but may be well worth it.

Check return policies. While you’re deciding about that dress, don’t forget to ask the sales associate about the store’s return policy. Outlet stores often have limited return policies, with some items being final sales.

Shop off-season and off-hours. Need a winter coat? Buy it in the spring. How about some beach gear? Buy it in the fall. You may enjoy your best deal simply by waiting for the prices to drop post-season. Also, if you’re able to shop off-hours on the weekdays, your outlet experience is likely to be an enjoyable one. Or, if crowds and traffic don’t bother you, trek to the outlet center on the weekend, but get there early to find parking. Sometimes parking lots overflow onto side roads on busy holiday weekends, so plan in advance.

Before you head off on your shopping trip, remember that, as always, an extra dose of patience may go a long way to you securing the best deals on your outlet adventure—not to mention a nice time spent with friends and family members who go along for the ride.

Resources: Forbes; Moneycrashers.com, Money Talks News, Wall Street Journal, U.S. News