10 Tips to Get the Best Deals From Outlet Shopping

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I used to think of outlets as a repository of amazing deals on brands I love. But after researching this story and making a trip to an outlet mall, my opinion has changed.

I recently trekked to a Gap outlet store hoping for big savings on their pants. But I was surprised by what I found: jeans that looked noticeably different and of lower quality than the pairs I'd purchased from the mall back home. How could this be?

As it turns out, I wasn't mistaken. According to Consumer Reports, Gap is one of several retailers that manufacture clothing specifically for their outlets, and these items may be different and of lower quality than what is in regular stores. This isn't the only trick retailers pull at their outlet stores, either.

Outlets still offer plenty of great deals that can make the trip worthwhile, but some savings aren't always what they seem.

1. Give outlet goods a closer look. Outlets aren't just for items that didn't sell at the retail store. Some offer seconds or B-grade goods, and many stores stock items that are only made for outlets, sometimes with noticeable differences in quality from what you'd find at the mall.

According to The Dallas Morning News, Saks outlets -- Saks Off 5th -- says only 12 percent of its goods are overstock from Saks Fifth Avenue stores. The rest was made specifically for the outlet location. Gap, Brooks Brothers and Coach admit they manufacture separate lines of goods exclusively for their outlet stores. Only 20 percent of what Nordstrom Rack sells is clearance merchandise from Nordstrom stores and website, according to this report, while the rest is bought expressly for the outlet.

Outlet-only clothing and goods vary in quality, so be sure to take a close look. Does the item feel like it's lighter? Does it look low quality? Some items might say "outlet" or "factory line" right on the tag. Here's a tip from Buzzfeed: "J.Crew Factory (the outlet for J.Crew) puts two diamonds under the "r" on its labels, while the Gap Outlet label uses three dots."

It's possible the outlet version is cheaply made and won't last as long as what you'd buy from the regular store, so factor in quality as well as price. On the other hand, some differences might be insignificant, and the savings may outweigh them.

2. Compare prices beforehand. Retailers know you're looking for savings at outlet stores, and many try to make these discounts seem as deep as possible. You may see signs at the outlet store suggesting prices are 65 percent off, but those only apply to the sorts of things that haven't sold despite repeated markdowns. Consumer Reports says the average savings are closer to 38 percent. You'll often see markdowns off the manufacturer's suggested retail price, but outlet or not, customers rarely pay this suggested price.

If you want to know what you're really saving, check the retailer's website and compare prices. You may be surprised to find outlet discounts aren't as big as they claim.

3. Join online outlet clubs. Premium Outlets and Tanger, two of the largest outlet operators, with 70 and 35 malls respectively, offer exclusive promotions when you become a member of their clubs.

With Premium Outlets' free VIP Club, you'll receive online coupons and notifications of special events.

Tanger charges a one-time $10 fee to join TangerClub, but you'll get a $10 gift card in return along with exclusive member offers and savings.

4. Get the best deals off-season. Shop for your winter clothing in the summer and for summer items in winter to bring outlet prices down even further.

5. Time your shopping trip. Outlets can be very busy, so you'll do best by avoiding both congestion and picked-over shelves by shopping at off-peak times. Experts suggest stopping in on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and shopping early in the day. If you're not a morning person, avoid the early afternoon and wait until dinnertime.

6. Check retail stores before outlets. Try shopping the local mall during sales or with coupons, where you might find the prices to be comparable but the quality better. Don't forget to look at clearance items both in the store and online.

7. Check with outlet centers for coupons and circulars. Coupons and other discounts can make outlet shopping an even better deal. Call or go online to see if any coupons or circulars offer additional savings. Senior and military discounts might also be available.

8. Watch the return policy. Unless you don't mind driving back to the outlet mall, check the return policy before loading up on discounted goods. Many regular stores don't take returns from outlet locations.

9. Ask outlet staff. If you have questions about the quality of outlet items, don't be afraid to ask store staff. Some employees may tell you if it's made for the outlet or offer other valuable information.

10. Don't fall into the daytrip trap. Don't see anything you like? Don't be afraid to leave empty-handed.

Outlet malls are typically placed in far-away locations. Not only is this real estate cheaper, but shoppers may also look at outlet shopping as investing in a full-day trip. With the expenses of gas, time and energy, shoppers may feel they need to justify the sunk costs and end up spending more than they would otherwise.

Ignore the impulse to spend more just to make the trip feel worthwhile. Shelling out more money for unneeded stuff won't make you feel better, no matter how much you spend on gas.

Outlet stores are just one way to find bargains, of course. If treasure hunting is your passion, don't forget to check our tips on shopping at thrift stores, Not Your Grandma's Goodwill, consider Rebate Sites that Pay You for Shopping Online and peruse the 10 Best Buys at Warehouse Clubs.

What's your approach to outlets? Are they part of your bargain-hunting strategy? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

-Ari Cetron contributed to this report.

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