Outlet malls are great, particularly during holiday or back to school shopping time when everyone in the world is there, fighting over discounted merchandise and waiting in long lines to purchase whatever must-have item costs $200 instead of $1,000. Does that sound sarcastic and cynical? It’s only because of my love/hate relationship with the outlet shopping scene. I can be found at my local outlet mall at least four or five times a year, and even though I show up with a bad attitude, I usually leave with a few bags of great deals. What you need to know is what to buy and what to avoid. While some of the savings are worth the money you’ll spend and the headaches you’ll endure (try an outlet store like Gap Kids mid-August), there are also bargains that are not worth it, or can be found elsewhere, like online. Here’s your cheat sheet, provided by a cynical and demanding shopper (me):
Buy bulk items. This might mean t-shirts for the summer, socks for the winter or polo shirts for your spring golf games. Lots of outlet stores have deals that deepen when you buy more. For example, you can find buy one/get one free specials on things like tank tops, flip flops, shirts, and even food items at outlet shops like Gourmet Chef. I stocked up on pretzel dips when I was supposed to be shopping for the holidays.
Buy off season items. The biggest discounts at outlet malls will come on the things you don’t immediately need. However, if you are comfortable with delayed gratification, you’ll come out ahead in savings. Buy bathing suits in October, for example because they will be deeply discounted. All your winter sweaters, coats and boots will also be marked down in March. As the seasons change, outlet mall retailers need to make room for new inventory, so they’ll be anxious to get rid of what is taking up space in the outlet store.
Buy last year’s big items. You will not find a great sale on any fashions right off the runway or electronics that just hit the market. If you have ever bought a book in an outlet store, you know you aren’t going to find anything on the current bestseller list. Outlet stores specialize in low cost merchandise that is not being sold elsewhere, either because it is off season, aging or simply surplus inventory. You’ll find trendy and fashionable things, yes. However, if you were hoping for a pair of shoes you found in this month’s issue of Vogue, you might have to settle for something similar.
Buy gifts. If you have to get something inexpensive but lovely for a relative, a friend, a child’s teacher or your reliable babysitter, the outlet mall is a good place to go. You can get gift items like candles, scarves, gloves, picture frames, artwork and fancy soaps for a pretty good deal. Items like these are almost always marked down at the outlets. Put together a shopping list, and you are sure to find something appropriate for nearly anyone on your list.