The shopping experience

Last reviewed: November 2011

For most people, outlet shopping requires a commitment of time. Most centers are in tourist destinations like Orlando and Las Vegas, or in areas at least 30 miles away from full-price stores in big cities, to avoid what the trade calls "retailer sensitivity." But those distances have narrowed: Outlets used to be at least 60 miles away from full-priced competitors.

Thirty-seven percent of outlet stores where readers shopped were more than 50 miles from their home; one in five were more than 100 miles away. Seventy percent of outlet center shoppers visited three to 10 stores, and 46 percent spent at least 3 hours shopping.

Given the distance and the price of gas, enhancing the customer experience is an industry priority, insiders told us. Malls are upgrading restaurants and adding children's play areas, benches, water fountains, and parking-lot shuttles. Many stores are designing bigger fitting rooms and eliminating cement floors, pipe shelving, and harsh lighting to more closely resemble retail boutiques.

Ultimately, though, it's the deals that keep shoppers coming back. The lure of the outlets is simple: Everything is on sale every day, even brands that are often excluded from sales at department stores, including Coach, Nautica, Polo Ralph Lauren, and Tommy Hilfiger.

Still, claims of discounts of up to 65 percent (the upper range touted by Premium Outlets) may be somewhat inflated. First, the loftiest discounts tend to be on clearance goods that shoppers have rejected despite repeated markdowns (think size XXXL sweaters in fuchsia and lime green). Also, the discounts are based on deductions from the full retail price, not necessarily the price most people pay. When you factor in sales and discounts at regular stores, says Humphers of Value Retail News, the average savings at outlets is 38 percent. Our own comparison showed savings of 15 to 61 percent on an assortment of goods.

You could probably save at least as much, and avoid a trip, by checking the clearance, outlet, or tent-sale sections of retailers' websites. But that's not what shopping is about, Humphers says. "Twenty years ago, catalogs were supposed to shoot down outlets," she says. "It didn't happen. Retail is about feeling the fabric and talking to a person. It's a tactile and sensory experience that a keyboard and screen can't provide."