3 T-Shirts for $7: The Risks and Rewards of Buying 'Irregular'

Pack of Hanes Shirts
Pack of Hanes Shirts

I'd been meaning to buy some new undershirts, so when I happened to see that the dollar store near my apartment was selling packs of Hanes V-necks, I decided to check it out. I was startled to find that a three-pack of shirts came to just $7. By comparison, the same package costs $12 at my local Kmart (SHLD).

Then I looked next to the price tag, where another label had been affixed: SLIGHTLY IMPERFECT.

Well, aren't we all, I thought. I slapped down $7 and brought home my new shirts to see what constituted "slightly imperfect."

Pack of Hanes Shirts
Pack of Hanes Shirts

One shirt had a random seam a couple of inches in length placed on the front of the shirt; either it had been torn and repaired, or else a screw-up in the manufacturing process put some extra stitching into it. Another shirt had a similar stitch in the middle of the back. The third had a few spots of what appeared to be a rust stain, though I've yet to see if it will come out in the wash.

I'm happy with my purchase. They are, after all, undershirts: They won't be seen by the general public, and none of the imperfections had any impact on the fit or comfort. They won't be appearing in any commercials with Michael Jordan, but they'll fit nicely in my top dresser drawer between my underwear and my socks.

Everyone knows that you can save money by purchasing used clothes, either at secondhand stores or on websites like eBay. But irregular or imperfect clothes represent another category of savings: Merchandise that's new, but which came out of the factory looking a little bit off. It might be something as innocuous as a double stitch on a sleeve, or it could be a manufacturing error which led to a shipment of pants that don't have quite the intended fit.

Manufacturers label these screw-ups accordingly, then ship them off to discount retailers that don't mind selling rejected clothes. RG Riley, a wholesale distributor of closeout merchandise and "hand-graded irregulars," says that it sells to a range of retailers, from dollar stores to drugstores to your local Goodwill Store.

Since an item can be marked irregular for a variety of reasons, employing this strategy comes with a bit of risk. Melissa Massello, editor-in-chief of Shoestring Magazine, says she remembers buying a pair of "irregular" J.Crew jeans from an outlet store as a teenager.

"The seam on the zipper was a little crooked," she recalls. "I got them for $20 because they were irregular, but they didn't fit like they were supposed to."

So if you're buying clothes from a discount retailer and see that an item is marked "irregular," "damaged" or "imperfect," you'll want to inspect it and try it on before you buy. If the flaw isn't something you can live with, Massello says that you'll want to determine whether the time and money it will take to fix it -- either by patching it yourself or taking it to a tailor -- is worth the discount.

Of course, you don't always have that option: The undershirts I bought were sealed in a package, so I didn't know what was wrong with them until I got them home. That makes it a bit of a crap shoot, but the good news is that most packaged items tend to be cheaper clothes like socks and underwear. So if I'd gotten them home and discovered that those undershirts weren't even fit to wear under another shirt, I would only have been out $7.

Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.

Photos by Matt Brownell