Outlet Malls: Great Deals or Duds?

Imagine 152 acres and 220 stores -- a mall a mile long. It's enough to make your head spin and your feet hurt. A big outlet mall can draw 30,000 shoppers in a single day. But will those shoppers find huge savings at a huge outlet mall? It depends.

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Outlet malls are among the top tourist destinations in the summertime. In the Washington, D.C., area, the number of outlet mall shoppers rival the number of visitors that go to see the Washington Monument, the Air and Space Museum and the Capitol.

Outlet malls claim they sell merchandise for 30 to 70 percent less than elsewhere. Some sell damaged or imperfect goods at cut rates. Some sell second-season merchandise that has already made the rounds at regular retail stores. And others claim they can cut prices by cutting out the middleman.

A producer and I systematically compared prices at an outlet mall and a regular mall. Sure enough, we found name-brand perfume for just $65 at the outlet. The same bottle was $105 at a regular mall. We discovered a jewelry outlet that was having a two-for-one sale on designer watches. The regular retail arm of the company was not. On the other hand, we saw brand-name sneakers for $16 less at a regular retail store that was having a killer sale.

Outlet malls are victims of their own success -- or rather we're victims of their own success. There just isn't enough imperfect and second-season merchandise to stock the outlet malls that now dot the landscape nationwide. So some stores have started designing inexpensive lines just for their outlets. Others manufacture cheaper versions of their most popular merchandise. That can be a bargain -- or a bummer. I once bought a pair of outlet store jeans that were tattered and torn after just 10 weeks of wear.

Think of it this way: Since outlet prices are pretty good, and sales at standard stores are worth waiting for, then sales at outlet malls may be the ultimate! Just be sure to compare prices and assess quality.

DO YOUR HOMEWORK:

1. Before you go to the outlet mall, register as a frequent shopper at the Web site. Doing that entitles you to additional member discounts on top of existing low prices and sales. Most outlet malls are owned by a handful of companies. Here are the main ones to get you started: www.tangeroutlet.com; www.premiumoutlets.com; www.primeoutlets.com.

2. Wear comfortable shoes and never shop on an empty stomach! Those are two sure ways to make hasty choices.

3. Know how much you're willing to spend for a given item and base your buying decisions on that rather than on "compare at" price tags or overblown "sale" signs.

4. Don't buy things just because they're bargains. Make sure you really want and need them.

5. Outlet malls can be overwhelming and some stores don't accept returns. Put items on hold as you go through the mall, then work your way back and buy the things you really want.

6. Examine articles to see if they're made well and from quality materials.

WHERE TO COMPLAIN:

If outlet mall merchandise is substandard and it wasn't marked "as is," try returning to the store where you bought it. If you're pleasant but firm, you may be able to get a refund -- even at a store with a "no refunds" policy.

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