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You'll find lots of hoiday festivities at most outlet malls–carolers, cocoa, Santa and his photo-snapping elves. And for the fifth year in a row, shoppers at the Outlets at Anthem mall in Phoenix can get a neck ache taking in the nation's tallest Christmas tree. (It was 115 feet last year, 39 feet taller than the tree at Rockefeller Center.)
But are outlets the best place to do your shopping over the holidays--or any time of year? To find out, Consumer Reports surveyed 15,789 readers who made 25,441 visits to outlet malls. The results--shown on our Ratings chart--rank 53 of the biggest outlet chains on value, quality, selection, and help. We also hit the outlets ourselves, spending more than $2,600 on kitchen appliances, cookware, electronics, food, luggage, and kids' clothing.
TThe takeaway: 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. And, surprise, we found a few items at retail stores that cost less than identical outlet items.
Overall, 67 percent of our readers said that they were completely or very satisfied with their experience, up from 60 percent in 2010, the last time we did an outlet survey. That's on par with our readers' scores for general-merchandise stores such as Costco, Kohl's, and Target. And shoppers liked a range of stores. Their top-rated choices: Bon Worth, L.L.Bean, Haggar, Carter's, OshKosh B'gosh, Jockey, Bose, Coach, Vitamin World, and Bath & Body Works.
For example, 8 percent said they found a poor selection of styles, sizes, or colors, and 6 percent complained that the quality of the merchandise was lower than they expected.
And you might be surprised to learn that not all stores at outlet malls are actually outlets. That was our reaction when a clerk at a Harry & David store told us that although its 48 locations are mainly in outlet malls, those shops are actually retail stores. By the industry's definition, an outlet center is a shopping center in which most of the individual tenants are owner-operated outlets.
During the leasing agreement process, developers usually require tenants to maintain a certain percentage of merchandise that is sold at a discount compared with retail-store prices. Indeed, the nine items we purchased at the Harry & David store were discounted, though only by 10 percent.
Most of our readers were happy with outlet deals. Sixty-four percent of store visits yielded a great value, and at 34 percent of stores prices were much lower than sale prices at regular stores. Readers' picks for superior value: Bon Worth, L.L.Bean, Haggar, OshKosh B'gosh, and Izod.
Thirty-eight percent in our survey said selection was as good as at regular stores, and 25 percent said there was a wider selection of goods. When we shopped at CorningWare Corelle, which got very good marks for selection, we found many more dish and dinnerware options than the handful available in stores that carry those brands, including Sears, Target, and Walmart.
Service received similarly good scores, with just 14 percent of respondents calling outlet service fair, poor, or very poor, down from 20 percent in 2010. And there may be more amenities to look forward to because many outlets are expanding their centers' offerings to entice families to linger. In addition to the holiday celebrations, look for new upscale restaurantsand food trucks, movie theaters, and art and music festivals.
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.
Outlet malls certainly are big business--and getting bigger, because even though the worst days of the recession are over, consumers still demand bargains. From 2006 through 2012, the amount American shoppers spent at outlet centers grew 41 percent, vs. 9 percent for traditional malls. By the end of this year, 50 new outlet centers will have been built since 2006; only three new retail malls have opened in the past eight years. The industry estimates that consumers will spend $42 billion in outlet malls this year, up from $24.3 billion in 2012.
Outlet shopping has also become more convenient. In the past, centers were built far from full-price stores in big cities to avoid competing with them. But retailers have seen that outlets actually complement their retail business, so more chains are building in or close to big cities, says Linda Humphers, editor of the trade publication Value Retail News."
But for many of us, it's still a schlep. In our survey, 34 percent of outlet malls where readers shopped were more than 50 miles from their home; one in five were more than 100 miles away.
Here's how to improve your outlet experience and save even more.