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Shop 'til you drop: The best outlet stores as ranked by Consumer Reports

Outlet stores promise big price breaks over traditional retail stores. But are the savings worth the schlep?Outlets have for years been places where stores offload “seconds,” unsold merchandise, manufacturing errors, factory discards and refurbished items. Landlords often require a certain percentage of goods be sold at discount compared with retail prices. Deal-hungry consumers are estimated

Outlet stores promise big price breaks over traditional retail stores. But are the savings worth the schlep?

Outlets have for years been places where stores offload “seconds,” unsold merchandise, manufacturing errors, factory discards and refurbished items. Landlords often require a certain percentage of goods be sold at discount compared with retail prices. Deal-hungry consumers are estimated to be spending $42 billion this year at outlet stores, up from $24.3 billion in 2012. 

But as manufacturing of goods, which are made mainly overseas, has shifted so discards never get shipped over to the U.S., the outlet game has changed. Many manufacturers will make items specifically for their outlet stores, designed with fewer finishes or less expensive material than their retail offerings. You usually don’t know what you’re in for, however, until you show up the outlet store and start handling the merchandise. By then you’ve already trekked to the outskirts of town or a few towns over and you’re not going to go home empty-handed.

In this photo taken on June 11, 2009, a group of people make their way toward stores at the Napa Premium Outlets in Napa, Calif. Eric Risberg / Today

Consumer Reports sent secret shoppers around the country to test various outlet stores and see who came out tops. Armed with an eye for value, the agents ranked the stores they visited based on price, product availability and quality, customer service and overall satisfaction.

Among the best: 

  • Bon Worth 
  • L.L. Bean
  • Haggar
  • Carter’s
  • OshKosh B’Gosh
  • Jockey
  • Bose
  • Coach/Coach Men’s
  • Bath & Body Works
  • Vitamin World 
  • Corningware Corelle


But not every store made the grade.

Stores that ranked the lowest included Nike, Levi’s, GAP, Old Navy and J. Crew.

Overall, Consumer Reports survey respondents said they were happy with outlet stores, finding savings of 3 percent to 72 percent. But about 17 percent of respondents said prices were actually higher. So to make sure you get the deals you deserve, try these handy tips:

Get a map
With the average outlet mall boasting over 100 stores, it’s not too dorky at all to go online ahead of time, download the map and make your plan of attack.

Check the app
Price-checking apps like Red Laser can scan bar codes to make sure you can’t get better prices online or at nearby stores.

Ask for discounts
Common perks include discounts for AARP members and students.

Check the return policy
If you’re not happy with your outlet store purchase, you usually can’t return it at the chain’s regular store. You’d have to trek back to the outlet store to deal with it.

Email Ben Popken ben.popken@nbcuni.com or tweet @bpopken.