By Kara Reinhardt, Cheapism.com
Lured by the promise of luxury goods at discount prices, shoppers spend $22.4 billion at outlet centers, according to a 2010 State of the Industry report by trade publication "Value Retail News." But how much do shoppers save? Recent research on outlet shopping vs. retail by Cheapism.com revealed that consumers can save nearly 30 percent overall by doing their holiday shopping at an outlet mall. Cheapism found individual items for up to 85 percent less than comparable products at a regular retail mall.
The report compares the cost of shopping for a list of potential holiday gifts — an iPhone case, a wallet, a V-neck sweater, for example — and a few other things consumers might need for the season, such as holiday outfits for the kids. The total after discounts and before taxes came to $1,240.15, compared with $1,756.62 at retail — a savings of more than $500, or 29.4 percent, on comparable items. Cheapism also surveyed prices on dozens of additional items. Some of the biggest discounts included a Calphalon open-stock sauté pan for 85 percent off.
Price isn't the only consideration when you're shopping for gifts, however, and often can be misleading. Here are some of Cheapism’s tips for finding the best deals at the outlets:
Know what you’re buying and where it came from. Is that Coach bag a deeply discounted jewel or a made-for-outlet design? Each of the leading brands mentioned in the report is represented by a particular mix of products in its outlet stores. Some items are liquidation merchandise, but others are made specifically for factory stores and some are the same stuff you’d find at retail. Don’t be afraid to ask a salesperson about the origin of an item before you buy.
Pay attention to detail. Made-for-outlet products are sometimes constructed with less expensive material and less embellishment. For example, a red sweater dress from the Gymboree outlet emulated a dress from the previous season’s retail line but was woven from thinner material and lacked pockets and faux-crystal buttons. On the other hand, cosmetic flaws on discounted Dutch ovens at Le Creuset were scarcely noticeable.
Take the list price with a grain of salt. Outlets try to entice shoppers by printing two prices on the tag: the MSRP, or manufacturer’s suggested retail price, and the lower outlet price. Ostensibly this tells you how much you can save off retail, but remember that much of the merchandise some stores carry is made for the outlet and was never sold at retail.
Shop sales and use coupons. Much of the actual savings at outlet malls comes from sales and coupons the stores hand out at the door or offer online. Before discounts, the savings at the outlet mall were closer to 20 percent in Cheapism’s survey.
Retail stores sometimes offer better value. Depending on what you’re looking for, it may not always be worth it to make the trip to the outlet mall. Check Cheapism’s rundown of outlets vs. retail to find out when it pays to shop the outlets.