Are you a sucker for shopping at outlet malls?

Remember when you had to drive into the middle of nowhere to find a factory outlet store? From my house in Sacramento, I had to drive two hours to Gilroy, the Garlic Capital of the World, to shop at one, but it was worth the travel because I knew I was going to score a great deal on designer goods, however "irregular" they may have been.

Now, factory outlets -- excuse me, "designer outlet malls" as they're now termed -- are everywhere. I pass two outlet malls on the 90-mile drive to San Francisco. There's even one in the Napa Valley, where plenty of upscale oenophile residents can afford to pay full price. These outlet malls are ubiquitous in California -- and so are the stores in them (Nine West, Brooks Brothers, Bass, Polo).facebook fan

So have you gone to one recently and noticed the deals aren't as great as they once were? Maybe they're 20% or 25% off, but it's a shocker when items are half price or more. That's what I was thinking during my latest visit over the summer: "Gee, haven't I seen the same markdown for these Nine West sandals at Macy's? Shouldn't I being seeing better at the outlet?"

My suspicions were confirmed after reading MP Dunleavey's good story on MSN Money "Are Outlet Malls for Suckers?" They don't offer the great deals that they used to, and you can often find better deals elsewhere. In fact, they may be promoting "bargains" by first setting artificially high reference prices, then marking them down. Dunleavey got a lot of her information from Cheap: The High Cost of Low Culture, a great new book by Ellen Ruppel Shell that explores what consumers lose when they're always buying things on sale and at the lowest cost possible.

The shocker to me was that many designer outlets sell items created specifically for those outlet stores. Sure, they still sell off-season and irregular items, but many of them, like Coach and Brooks Brothers, supplement their made-for-retail items with made-for-the-outlet items, and they're not alike. What you think is a deal on a designer-label item is actually a fair-value price on a lower-quality product.

Brooks Brothers admitted to Dunleavey that it has a factory-outlet line called 346 that uses different fabrics, some of which are less expensive. Coach has an outlet-specific line, and although it's made with the same quality standards, the styles are different than the ones in its retail stores. Even though it's passé to brag about wearing designer duds, it's still disconcerting to buy something that the retailer created specifically for outlet shoppers. Do they really use the same production standards for customers they're irked at for not buying their goods at full price?

Dunleavey offers some good tips for not getting suckered , like scrutinizing the item for its details (fabric, stitching, heft and weight), research its price beforehand, ask if it's an outlet-specific item, use outlet stores' online coupons to get a better deal, or just go the clearance rack at the actual retail store.

Another reader, "Dominics Mom," added a great suggestion: check out the "real product" in the retail store first to see specifics like its price, details, overall appearance and quality so that when you go to the outlet mall, you have a good comparison and are better able to know what kind of a deal you're really getting.
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