Secret Shopping Tricks To Use At The Outlet Mall

Like conquering sample sales and committing to the ultimate investment bag, shopping the outlets can be a bit of an undertaking — requiring prep work, emotional resolve, and good old critical thinking. But, the results are so, so worth it. (Nicholas Kirkwood python pumps at 75% off worth it.) Mark Ellwood, journalist, MSNBC TV host, and author of Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World, might compare the experience to “walking through a retail minefield,” but war analogies or not, he still won’t pass up the chance to hit the outlets. It’s all about being smart, informed, and totally strategic. Just follow these tips and reap the rewards of your hard work.
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
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What You’ll Really Find
Back in the day, factory stores sold irregulars and overstock. Brands then began producing entirely different clothing for their outlets, and now the lines are completely blurred. “In modern outlet centers, there is really no difference between factory stores and outlet stores,” confirms Premium Outlets vice president Christine Greak.
So, what are they selling? Nordstrom Rack confirmed that 80% of the offerings in its stores were never sold at mainline Nordstrom department stores. Brands like Equipment, Theory, kate spade, and Vince will even make outlet-specific items for Neiman Marcus Last Call Studios, which only sells made-for-outlet stock. (Pro tip: For actual clearance-rack goods, head to the Neiman Marcus Last Call Clearance Center.) Buzzfeed points out that only 10% of the goods sold at Off 5th came from actual Saks Fifth Avenue stores. And, that bag you’re eyeing at the Coach outlet? Well, 85% of the goods in the shop were made specifically for discount hunters. At J.Crew and Gap factory stores, everything is outlet-specific, which means it’s all been spared multiple trips to multiple locations, with potential wears and returns in between, and it’s all brand-spankin’ new.
“I find there's a huge difference in construction and fabric contents,” says New York-based sale and shopping expert Mizhattan of the difference between these diffusion lines and original labels. Sometimes, the pieces might even look identical, but in order to sell the outlet goods at such discounted prices, brands might use less-expensive materials and less-complicated manufacturing processes. The Daily Mail highlights an example from the J.Crew Factory store, which sold the doppelganger of a silk dupioni floral dress (priced at $178) from the main line. The outlet version, priced at $74.50, was made out of polyester, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing — think of the money you’ll save on dry cleaning — but is a reason to check those tags.
Not Every Deal Is A Great Deal
Let’s talk about that higher price on the tag that highlights what you could have paid. “By legal definition, if you see the words ‘original price,’ that means something is reduced from a previous sales price,” says Ellwood. So, what about outlet-specific items? The higher price (often crossed out) is just going to be “a number that is low enough to be plausible, but high enough to offer a contrast with the lower price,” he explains. Be on the lookout for “outlet exclusive,” “compare at,” “retail value,” or any words except “original price,” the only one that denotes a price that has actually been charged for that item.
If you’re easily enticed by a great deal (who isn’t?) Ellwood has an easy trick to filter out those higher-lower price comparisons. Just cover the bigger number on the tag with your finger and decide: “Would I pay $25 for this? This isn’t reduced, this isn’t a deal. Is it worth $25? Because, that is what it’s really priced at.” Because, if you like it, you like it, period, but wooed by a big discount isn’t going to help you fill those holes in your wardrobe.
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Do Your Prep Work
Your pre-shopping work involves a little more than whittling your wish-list down to the brands you know and love. You’ve also got to know their labels — literally.
Differentiating between made-for-outlet and main line items takes recognizing tags. For instance, the J.Crew Factory tags have two diamonds under the “r;” the Gap Factory Store label has three dots; and the serial number on Coach outlet bags will include a telltale “FS” (for “Factory Style”). Now, we might not all have photographic memories, but we do have smartphones. Ellwood suggests taking pics of the labels of your go-to brands — either from your own closet or your local mall — to have as reference points.
Ellwood also said an outlet expert once told him if a brand has 12 or fewer outlet locations worldwide, then it probably doesn’t have the ability to mass-produce made-for-outlet items. So, everything in-store is more likely to be from previous collections. As an example, Nordstrom has 118 full-price department stores nationwide, yet 162 Nordstrom Rack locations. Do the math; the Rack clothes can’t possibly all be getting handed down from Nordstroms. Googling the number of storefronts each brand has is one way to find this out before embarking on your shopping extravaganza, although Greak of Premium Outlets — which includes Woodbury Common, home of the lone Tom Ford outlet — has an even simpler solution: just ask. “At some of the designer stores, associates can even point you in the direction of pieces that were part of runway collections,” she says.
Go In Person
With so many flash sales and discounters online, is it worth getting off your couch (and changing out of your PJs) to fight the hordes of hysterical bargain hunters in person? In a word: yes.
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“Nothing beats online shopping when it comes to convenience,” says Mizhattan. “But, with outlet shopping, I steadfastly recommend seeing the item in person. Outlet items can be irregular, damaged, or of subpar quality. It's best to see it, feel it, and then choose to buy it.”
For Ellwood, it comes down to finding better stuff in-store than online. According to MarketWatch, designers are producing less inventory and store sales have improved, which means there is simply less precious overstock left for all those e-comm sites. Also, you might miss some gems. “If, say, Barneys has 20 of something, it’s worth taking a photograph of it in the studio and putting it the discount website,” he explains. “If it has two of something, they’re not going to bother. They’re just going to send it to the store. So, I would always go to the store.” He also suggests hitting grand openings of outlets because they always debut with the best of the best.
Know The Lay Of The Land
Mapping and pre-planning your shopping route makes for a more efficient day, but take it one step further once you’re inside the store. “The deepest discounts and clearance items are often at the back of the store,” Greak tells us. Outlets also tend to stash the clearance racks in the corners of the shop.
Ellwood points out that the majority of us are right handed, and that stores take that into consideration when determining what will go to the right (more expensive items, stock they want to unload), and even aim loud music to entice shoppers in that direction. And, it must work; studies show that people tend to look right as they enter a store. “I always am very curious as to what’s to the left,” he says. “Whether it’s something that is dead stock that they don’t care about, or it’s probably something that’s a really good deal.” So, like Beyoncé says: "to the left, to the left."
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
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Play The Pricing Game
Hey, the clearance racks are at the back and corners for a reason — so you’ll have to venture through a sea of temptation to get there. “Eye-level merchandise is usually the priciest,” Mizhattan says. Also, big “sale” signs might not refer to discounted items; they’re just drawing you to products the store wants to move. The “buy one, get one free” or “X percentage off for-a-limited-time-only” strategies are meant to tempt you into buying more than you originally planned. (Which sometimes has its benefits, like when you find a shirt you love and can get it in three colors for cheap.)
Ellwood also highlights the adorably-named “Goldilocks Pricing,” which he says is “about just-right-ness.” Like the bears, the items may be merchandised in threes. He gives the example of the $19.99, $29.99, and $39.99 sweaters. Basically, the store wants you to buy the $29.99 one because it makes a higher margin off of that markup, but the quality difference between that and the $19.99 knit is minimal. “But, no one buys the cheapest because they feel like they’re going to go for ‘just-right,’” Ellwood says. His trick about just looking at a price and deciding if the item is worth that to you works well in this scenario, too. Forget the other two versions, just pick the one you want!
Speaking of the $.99: Ellwood says the number nine registers as “good value” in our brains, while seven and eight mean massive discounts and a whole dollar amount means quality. Here, he tweaks his price-tag trick to just cover the last two digits — whether the price has change or is a whole dollar, do you want those shoes? (You probably do, right?)
Be Particular
First off, have a general game plan of what you want to buy before you hit the outlets. It’ll save time and hopefully guard against any distractions along the way. That said, be open to shopping off-season (like, buying a plush wool coat in the middle of July) because that’s when major deals abound. Also, “always buy classics,” Ellwood says. “If you can find cashmere that isn’t outlet specific nab it.” He suggests avoiding leftover “editorial” pieces; you won’t get much wear out of them for the price you pay.
Just because you found something great at the outlet (congrats!) doesn’t mean you have to buy it at the outlet. Don’t forget that smartphone burning a hole in your pocket. If you spot a recognizable overstock piece, do a quick search on the ShopStyle app to check competitors’ prices. Barcode scanners like RedLaser and ShopSavvy are also rad for on-the-spot price comparisons.
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Timing Is Everything
No matter when you go, Greak says outlet pricing will usually be between 25 to 65% off. But both she and Mizhattan suggest braving Black Friday (we know) for massive discounts. Last year at Woodbury Common, shoppers faced the challenge for sales like these: fancy La Perla bras reduced to $20, and an extra 25% off the lowest-ticketed price jewelry at David Yurman. Of course, deals always vary by individual stores.
Greak is also noticing that the discounting starts earlier and earlier each year. “By early November, many stores are running aggressive sales that continue throughout the holiday season,” she says. Other times of the year to look out for special pricing include: Memorial Day, Labor Day, back-to-school time, plus seasonal clearance sales which tend to run in July and January.
Another Mizhattan tip: If you’re more about nabbing the good stuff (as opposed to additional discounts), hit the outlets two to three weeks before the holiday shopping season when the re-stocking happens. In general, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays are delivery days, so plan your personal days accordingly. (Not to mention, the weekends are bananas.) Also from noon to 3 p.m. are outlet malls’ highest traffic times, so there’s that, too.
Final words of advice: Wear comfortable shoes and an easy-on-easy-off outfit to minimize dressing-room annoyance. You’ve got this.
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