Five ripoffs to watch out for at the outlet stores

Five ripoffs to watch out for at the outlet storesOutlet shopping is such big business, it stands to reason that retailers try to slip some tricks past shoppers to make a little more money. The next time you hit your nearest outlet center, keep these tips in mind, and avoid the five ways that retailers try to divert you from the true discount shopping opportunities.

The foot traffic at America's outlet malls is immense, and everyone is there to spend. Many of the country's biggest malls are tourist attractions unto themselves. Franklin Mills Outlets, outside of Philadelphia, attracts about 18 million visitors more than ten times the number who visit Independence Hall. And because of its strong attraction for international tourists, Florida's Sawgrass Mills, outside of Fort Lauderdale, is estimated to rope about 26 million shoppers a year, or about two and a half times the estimated draw for Epcot at Walt Disney World in Orlando.

Most outlet stores are located far from town, and not just because that's where the rent is cheap. It also helps shoppers believe that inaccessibility means there must deals there. The truth is shoppers arrive at outlet malls assuming that everything they see will be a bargain off the prices they'd pay in town. Some retails take advantage of your convenient assumptions:

1. The amount you save may be a lie
Most stuff is tagged with what the Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price used to be. But in fact, that MSRP might as well be made up. Most stores custom-print tags for their outlet markets, and they can put the MSRP at whatever level they want to make the item seem like a bigger bargain than it actually is. The only way to arm yourself against this simplest of tactics is to know what you want to buy before you leave home, do price research so you know the normal price, and then compare your real-world finding with the special tag at the outlet store. Don't trust the store to tell you its retail price, because its sole intention is to lure you into a purchase.

2. Not everything is marked down
I needed some compression shorts for my workouts, so I recently went to an Under Armour outlet store. I was surprised to see that its shorts were no cheaper than they were in the outside world. I asked a sales associate why that was true. "Those are our core products," I was told. "And we don't discount our core products." I might as well buy them from a preferred retailer, then -- at REI, at least I get 10% back from every purchase in the form of an annual dividend, I told him. But a less attentive shopper might have tossed them in the cart, assuming that everything was marked down in Outletland.

3. Overcharged at the register
Few people buy just one thing at outlet stores. They go on sprees. Piling lots of assumed bargains on the counter makes it tempting for stores to "accidentally" overcharge you for one or two of them at the register. You probably won't notice. On a recent trip to Prime Outlets in Orlando, I wanted a dress shirt at the Calvin Klein store that was marked as 40% off. I worked out in my phone's calculator that the item should have cost $32.10. But it rang up as $36 -- it was still cheap, so the mistake was easy to miss -- and the clerk was already asking for my credit card before I had a chance to clock the disparity. I pointed out the error, which sprang from incorrect information in the bar-code scan, and after a staff huddle, the price was corrected and the clerk sheepishly apologized to me. "I don't know how that happened," she told me. How convenient, too, that it would have put another $4 in the cash drawer.

4. Knockoff products
The outlet industry hates talking about it. It's the dirty secret of the business. But it's true: Lots of stuff is made expressly for the outlet market. You may think you're getting the top-line department store stuff, but you probably won't be. It's often lower-quality, with poorer cuts and cheaper fabrics, which means you shouldn't expect it to last as long as the real thing. That doesn't matter if you fall in love with your purchase, but it's something to keep in mind: Like the phony MSRP, you should never make the assumption that what you see is truly been dumped into the outlet malls from the mainstream retail market. A few stores do sell stuff that didn't sell out at the department stores -- the operative phrase to look for is clearance store. One of them is Neiman Marcus Last Call.

5. Worthless coupon booklets.
Also at Orlando's Prime Outlets (which, despite my problems, is a fruitful place to shop if you come prepared), you have the option of paying $7 on a booklet of coupon deals. The trouble is that many of them won't pay off. Many are only good for purchases of $100 or more (making most casual purchases ineligible), and even then for only about 10% off, which barely pays for the coupon booklet. They also aren't usually good during sales anyway, and at many outlet stores, the posted "sales" never seem to go away. Still more offer a "special gift" after spending a certain amount of money, and that gift may turn out to be cheap or worthless. I once got a "special gift" travel alarm clock that never worked from the moment I activated the battery.

Where coupon booklets shine is for big-ticket purchases such as leather coats or jewelry. Even an offer for 10% off for purchases of $100 or more can mean a $30 savings off a $300 coat, which more than pays for the $7 you spend to get the booklet. Again, knowing what you want to buy, and doing the math ahead of time, is the key to not getting the shaft.

There's one more way to lose money at the outlet store, but this one is entirely your fault: Never spend money to save money. If you hear yourself saying these words -- "I have to buy it! It's such a deal!" -- then check yourself, because you might not have spent that money otherwise. The true savings are for things you knew you needed before you walked into the mall.

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