Thursday, May 21, 2015

Everything You Need to Know About Shopping Outlet Malls

I love a good outlet mall. So many stores, so many treasures waiting to be unearthed. If you're planning to some outlet shopping this Memorial Day weekend, you need to keep reading...

A few favorites from a recent trip...
I grew up near a huge outlet center, back in the good old days when outlet stores actually carried last season/irregular merchandise (more on that later). I'll admit when I was in high school, I usually turned my nose up at the idea of outlets. Having to dig through the racks to find the right size, the right color, etc. seemed like a hassle. It was easier to go to the mall and just buy whatever was in the window of The Gap or Express like my friends did.

As an adult, I've developed a new appreciation -- some of the best pieces in my closet are outlet scores, and I hit one of the local outlet malls here in Orlando (we have three!) at least once or twice a month.

At this point, I consider myself a pretty savvy outlet shopper. Here are my best tips for finding the best pieces and scoring the best deals.

Do your homework...

God, this place is enormous...
MAKE A PLAN. Check out the store directory online and decide what your priorities are. There are so many types of stores, you probably don't need to shop for clothing and luggage and housewares and gourmet popcorn and running shoes all in the same day. Decide which stores you want to hit and figure out the most logical route. I usually like to make a second lap later in the day (picking up that pair or jeans I was debating, or maybe even returning something I changed your mind about), and having an efficient route mapped out will make this super easy.

GET THE COUPON BOOK -- BUT DON'T PAY FOR IT. This is the step that makes me feel a bit like my mom -- let's admit it, even talking about coupons feels kind of lame. But you're shopping at the outlets at least in part to score some bargains, so don't leave any money on the table.

Almost every outlet mall has some kind of coupon book available offering additional discounts (they vary by store, and most stores participate). This book is for sale for between $5-10, but there are always ways to get it for free: join the outlet's VIP club, show a membership card (AAA, AARP), "like" the outlet's Facebook page, etc. Dig around and figure out what your options are.

FIND EVEN MORE COUPONS. Check out the outlet's website for additional printable coupons, and check retailer's websites to see if you can get on their outlet's email list -- they'll let you know about new merchandise, special sales, and yes, even more coupons. It's a little bit of work, but sometimes these extra discounts make all the difference.

Make your life a little easier...

DRESS SMART. Taking an extra minute to be thoughtful with your outfit can make your trip so much easier. I have a uniform for any big shopping outing:

*flats or easy to remove, comfy shoes so can easily try on prospective purchases.
*weather-appropriate layers -- I like to wear a good tank under a blazer or sweater so I can slip on items without having to run to the dressing room.
*my favorite jeans or pants -- it will save you time in the dressing room if you can try on tops with the pants you're likely to pair them with.
*no coat (unless it is frigid) -- it will be warm in the stores, and it will just get in the way while you're trying things on.

GO VERY, VERY EARLY. Seriously, if you don't listen to a single thing I say, listen to this. Particularly if you're going on a weekend, make sure you are there when the stores open (even a little early). I can get a whole day's worth of shopping done in just an hour or two as long as I get there first thing in the morning.

Being an early bird is great for SO many reasons: you'll get the best pick of merchandise, you'll have plenty of attention from the sales staff, and you'll get a parking space without having to murder someone.

MAKE CROWDS WORK IN YOUR FAVOR. Holiday weekends always bring out the crowds, and stores often offer their best sales. I love taking advantage of these, but I try to do it in the smartest way possible. On Memorial Day weekend (or really any 3-day holiday weekend), I'll usually try to make my outlet visit on Sunday morning. You'll get big crowds early on Saturday and Monday, but people tend to take their time getting up and out on Sundays. (At Thanksgiving, I'll skip Black Friday -- just so insane -- and show up on Saturday or Sunday morning to find virtually the same discounts and empty stores)

While You're Shopping...

LOWER YOUR EXPECTATIONS. So, here's the deal with today's "outlets" -- the (now well-known) secret to these stores is that for the most part, they no longer carry the merchandise you'd find in a regular store. Retailers like Gap, Banana Republic, J. Crew, and Kate Spade all make a secondary (lesser quality) line that they sell in their outlets. Basically, they are selling their own knockoffs -- looks sorta the same, but definitely isn't the real deal.

Some stores do this well -- J. Crew and Loft, for example. Generally their outlet pricing matches the quality of their items, the materials are pretty good, and the styling is in line with their namesake brand.

Others struggle -- Kate Spade, Coach, and Michael Kors come to mind. I usually think the leathers look cheap, the colors garish, and styles kind of cheesy. Honestly, the products look like what you'd expect to find at Target (but at very un-Target prices). It makes me a bit sad, I think some brands just trade on their name and figure that there are enough people who are so label conscious that they'll buy almost anything with the right logo, even if it isn't particularly attractive (and maybe they're right -- the outlet stores are packed and people are just buy, buy, buying -- but at what cost? According to this article, at least some brands are starting to see the repercussions).

That isn't to say that you won't find things you love -- I've picked up some fantastic wallets at Kate Spade outlets, and I actually prefer J. Crew Factory to J. Crew because I think the Factory items are usually a better value. But just keep this little "secret" in mind when you're thinking about a purchase...and make sure you're not comparing the outlet's orange to the parent brand's apple.

KNOW THE PRICING GAME. By now, every retailer knows that people love a bargain. No one is happy with just getting a fair price -- we need a steal, we need to feel like we got away with something. All retails stores do it, but even more so the outlet malls are more than happy to feed that need. Of course, we're trying to get one over on them while they're trying to get one over on us, so don't be swayed by big sale signs -- if a store is offering 50% off of everything, they never expected you to pay full price to begin with.

When you're considering buying, decide for yourself what that item is worth. Don't pay attention to the inflated original sticker price -- think about what you think is fair and compare that to whatever the "sale" price is.

WORK YOUR RESTING BITCH FACE. You'll lose valuable time if you get stopped by the guy selling dead sea skin products or the fiber mascara lady, so just try not to look too approachable.

OK, so you have some ground rules down, now for the fun part -- the shopping! I always like to keep an open mind, but in general these are some of the best things to shop for:

*Designer sunglasses and watches -- you can find great deals on the exact styles that you'd find in retail stores. You'll find the biggest selections at department store outlets (like Off 5th and Neiman Marcus Last Call), but don't forget to check out specialty shops like Michael Kors, Coach, and Fossil.

*Sneakers -- you may have to sift through odd sizes and color combos, but you'll have your pick of almost every major retailer. Outlets can be particularly great if you wear an uncommon size (hello, 10.5) or need a wide or narrow width.

*Unmentionables -- bras, panties, and tights can be annoyingly expensive; keep your eye out for Victoria's Secret or other specialty outlets to stock up on basics for a bargain.

*Sportswear/Swimwear -- outlet malls are fantastic for finding deals on specialty gear -- hiking boots, ski jackets, bathing suits -- all-year round. You'll often have a few outdoor-type stores to choose from (North Face, Columbia, Bass, etc), and those stores don't seem to follow the same seasonal cycles that traditional retailers observe. So if you're going hiking in Europe in July or heading to Mexico for Thanksgiving you'll be able to fill your suitcase for less.

And probably stay away from:

*Luggage -- everything at the outlets is super marked up, and there are plenty of other places to buy a suitcase. I priced out a 3-piece set at the Samsonite outlet and then drove down the road and found the same exact set in a TJ Maxx for less than half the price.

*High-end fabrics at too-low prices -- I see a lot of really bad cashmere, silk, and leather at outlet malls. It may be 100%, but it lacks the feeling of a great luxury fabric.

*Non-outlet stores -- why is there always a random Forever 21 or H&M in an outlet center? Just a regular old store, selling the same things you can find at the mall. I usually avoid these on principle.

Good luck and happy shopping! If you do any shopping this weekend, let me know what you find -- I'll be sharing any juicy finds on Instagram, so feel free to follow along!

1 comment:

  1. Somehow I always end up near an outlet mall on vacation -- oops! I've found a lot of great deals, and once I needed to buy an extra suitcase so I could get everything home!