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The #1 secret you probably don’t know about outlet shopping

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Theo Thimou |
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Do you like outlet shopping as much as we do?

Unfortunately, what you think is a deal may be no deal at all because of a secret that the outlets keep closely guarded.

Read more: What you need to know about store credit cards

Outlet shopping moves from exurbs to the suburbs

Outlet centers had their origins in rural mill towns. They were typically attached to factories and were a dumping ground for irregulars, factory seconds and unsold inventory from manufacturers.

In their next incarnation, they moved closer to mid-sized and bigger cities, though they were always careful to stay 50 miles or more away from the city core.

Yet the outlet business model has become so key to retailing that now outlet centers are often in suburbs. They’re no longer relegated to the exurbs, 50 miles away.

When Clark was a young man, he had to wear a suit with a dress shirt and tie to work. (Now he wouldn’t be caught dead in that at work!) He would go to factory outlets and buy factory second shirts for $2 and irregulars for $6. The factory seconds would have huge mis-stitches. “So if I had a meeting, I had to wear my jacket all day to cover my $2 shirt!” the consumer champ recalls.

The greatest finds were when big production runs were done for a retailer and that retailer went bust, declined delivery or went on credit watch.

The big secret hiding in your neighborhood outlet store

The #1 Secret You Don't Know About Outlet ShoppingToday, outlets are just regular versions of retail stores by another name. They can be high-end like Saks Fifth Avenue, Coach or any other brand name department store. Or they can be brand names like Nike or Gap.

But here’s what you need to know: The amount of merchandise in today’s outlet stores that is irregulars or factory seconds is around 1% to 5%.

What’s there is mostly stuff being specifically made for outlet stores. The goods are designed specifically for outlets only using inferior stitching and subpar material. You’ll almost never find what’s being sold in the outlet store in the traditional retail store. It may look the same, but it’s not.

So while it is an experience going to these places, but they’re not a place to save money. Think of them as a place to get aspirational fashion — nothing more, nothing less. That bag may say ‘Coach’ on it, but it’s not the same quality Coach bag you would find in the real non-outlet store.

Know what you’re getting and don’t believe the ‘was/now’ pricing — as in ‘was $200/now $18’ or whatever it may be. That’s just retail theater!

Follow this advice to make your outlet trip easier and cheaper!

Go clearance

Look for the clearance racks near the back of the outlets — but be sure to vet your finds carefully before purchasing. Typical problems you’ll want to look for include inferior stitching, missing buttons and decals peeling off, according to Consumer Reports.

Follow the calendar and the clock

Much like anything else, outlets have their own rhythm. The busiest times are typically afternoons on the weekends and anytime around the holidays. If possible, go midweek instead, and during quieter times of the year.

Look for loyalty programs and coupon books

Major outlet mall companies like Tanger and Premium offer coupons and more if you join their loyalty programs. Premium offers a free VIP coupon book, while prices start at $3 for Tanger’s coupon booklet.

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