If there was ever a time consumers could use a bargain, this is it—so despite the sour economy, the $30 billion outlet industry is thriving. "When the economy turned south, everyone and their brother mustered all the discipline they could to save money," says Linda Humphers, editor of Value Retail News, a trade publication. "People say ‘I've got to cut back but don't want to shop at Walmart.' Outlets represent value."
But are outlets delivering on that promise? To find out, we surveyed 17,753 readers who made close to 39,000 visits to outlet stores. The result is our Ratings (available to subscribers) of value, quality, selection, and service at 58 of the nation's biggest outlets. We also interviewed experts and hit the outlets ourselves, buying $2,000 worth of shirts, slacks, socks, sweats, and other items to examine in our labs.
The results show that some outlets offer serious bargains on well-made merchandise sold by a knowledgeable and solicitous staff; others stock so-so goods at so-so prices. Our research revealed:
Among the top choices: Jockey and Carter's (clothes, underwear), Harry & David (food), Corningware (kitchenware), Izod and Van Heusen (clothes), and Coach (accessories).
Overall, 60 percent said that they were completely or very satisfied with their experience. That's below our readers' scores for general-merchandise stores like Costco, Kohl's, and Target but similar to scores for fast-food restaurant chains and supermarkets. Eight percent of shoppers complained about the store environment, including crowds, few fitting rooms, unattractive stores, and confusing layouts.
Sixty percent of shoppers said outlets offered exceptional value, and 30 percent said that prices were much lower than sale prices at regular stores, especially at Coach, Haggar, Izod, Van Heusen, and VF Outlets (the parent company of dozens of apparel brands). Yet the top complaint about outlet shopping was higher-than-expected prices, cited in one of five store visits. Stores more likely to be called out for high prices: Bose, Calvin Klein, Casual Male XL, Gymboree, J.Crew, Levi's, Nike, Polo Ralph Lauren, Pottery Barn, Samsonite, and Sunglass Hut.
Almost three-quarters of shoppers described the merchandise quality as excellent or very good. About the same percentage rated outlet merchandise equal in quality to the same brands sold at regular stores; 11 percent judged outlet goods slightly poorer but said the differences were barely noticeable. Two percent thought outlet lines were "substantially poorer" than goods sold elsewhere. Specifically, Banana Republic, Brooks Brothers, Gap, J.Crew, and Pottery Barn were cited more than other stores for selling goods inferior to regular-store counterparts.
Readers said one-third of the outlet stores they visited had a narrower assortment than did regular stores. Nineteen percent of shoppers termed selection fair, poor, or very poor. The exceptions: Bose, Carter's, Harry & David, and Le Gourmet Chef, all of which rated higher for selection.
Twenty percent of respondents called outlet service fair, poor, or very poor. Harry & David was alone in earning a top score for help.