Today you'll find fewer "seconds" at outlets than a few years back, and more goods made just for the outlets. Because most goods are now manufactured overseas, damaged items are weeded out before they're shipped to the U.S. In addition, retailers have become better at forecasting demand, which has led to fewer production overruns, says Karen Fluharty, a partner at Strategy & Style Marketing Group, a retail consulting firm.
Made-for-the-outlet goods are usually tweaked so that they can be offered at a lower price. In general, we've found full-price versions were a bit better because of details or materials that could bolster comfort, appearance, or longevity. But in most cases, the outlet versions were fine. A bag we bought at a Coach outlet, for example, lacked a retail version's embossed leather, more comfortable handle, and curved zipper that allowed it to open wide for easy access. Yet our textile expert found that both bags were well-made. "Retailers may change the product slightly to reduce their cost so they can sell it for less, but they still stay true to their brand quality," Humphers says.
At Bose, we found many returned products that the company had refurbished. Some of the food at a Harry & David's store differed from its website offerings, including the fact that the store had no fruit in stock. But for some housewares and children's goods, we found identical items at retail stores: a girl's outfit, a boy's backpack, a dinnerware set, pots and pans, and a casserole dish.