Smart outlet shopping

Insider tricks to get the best stuff at the best prices

ShopSmart: July 2010


You really can get rock-bottom deals at any of the thousands of outlet stores scattered across the country. But you can save even more if you know how, where, and when to pluck the best buys. Save yourself gobs of money with these savvy tips.

Before you go ...

Have a plan of attack

Before you leave for the outlet mall, check its website. Most bigger malls have a downloadable map, which is good to have because some malls have 100 stores or more and you might not be able to get to them all in a day. You'll also find info on special promotions. On the site of Chelsea premium outlets (, which operates 44 outlet centers in the U.S., we discovered that shoppers age 50 and older get an additional 10 percent off their purchases throughout the mall on Tuesdays. When we checked, spending $350 or more throughout Black Friday weekend at Rockvale Outlets in Lancaster, PA ( scored you a free Christmas tree. For info on other major outlet centers, go to and

Time it right

Outlets often have the same sale schedules as retail stores; you can find extra savings during Columbus Day weekend, Thanksgiving weekend, and after Christmas. But be warned: Major outlet centers can be a zoo on weekends and on holidays. If you can't stand crowds, shop on weekday mornings if possible. Check websites for notices of special weekday sales.

Get the coupons, part 1

Major outlet malls offer coupon books but might charge for them—anywhere from $5 to $10. Save yourself the money by checking the center's website. At Prime Outlets' site, for example, you can get a voucher for a free book by signing up at no charge for its "Prime My Closet" program. If you forget to do that, head to the information center as soon as you arrive and ask whether any membership cards, such as AAA or AARP, will snag you the book free of charge. The answer is often yes. Also ask for any for additional coupons.

Get the coupons, part 2

In addition to offering the coupon books, many outlet malls put additional coupons online that you can print and take with you when you head to the stores. Examples of savings we found: 20 percent off any DKNY purchase and 15 percent off any purchase at Kate Spade.

Log on

Check store websites and Facebook accounts. Type in the names of individual stores and the word "outlet." You may pull up addition savings. Examples: The Reebok Outlet site offered 15 percent off our next purchase for signing up to receive e-mail. And the Facebook feed for the Liz Claiborne New York outlet gave us a link to a coupon for 20 percent off all dresses.

Once you're there …


Spot the good stuff

"Outlet" can mean different things, depending on the retailer. For example, an Eileen Fisher outlet we visited had garments that were previously at retail stores. But Gap Outlets sell lower-priced clothing made specifically for the outlet (in other words, you won't find the stuff at retail Gap stores). Saks Off Fifth carries both. If you're confused about what's what, ask a salesperson. In addition to looking out for telltale signs that an item was made for the outlets (such as a different label), watch out for irregulars, which may not give you a clue on the tag and will require a close going-over to spot flaws.

Don't go crazy

Just because it's in an outlet center doesn't mean you'll get deep discounts. At one outlet mall, we found Harry & David and Bose stores that carried the same merchandise at the same prices as regular full-price stores (although the Bose outlet also carried items that had been returned and were therefore discounted 10 to 15 percent, the salesperson told us). That's why a Web-enabled phone is your best friend. See something you like? Make sure it's a good deal by checking it on a price-comparison site such as or When we punched up a pair of cute black sandals we saw at a Cole Haan outlet, we found them for $25 less at Amazon—though only in red and a yellowy beige, not in black. But at a Williams-Sonoma outlet, we confirmed that a beautiful Le Creuset baking dish marked down to $112 was a bona fide bargain. (Williams-Sonoma's own website was selling what appeared to be the same dish online for $129.95, plus $16.50 for shipping.)

Do the math

Chances are, if you've done your research, you'll have multiple coupons to choose from. For example, we downloaded a Liz Claiborne coupon for 20 percent off from the outlet site. But the outlet coupon book had another coupon for $10 off a $50 purchase. You usually can't combine coupons, so you'll need to do the math to see which one gives you the better deal.

Chat up the salesperson

Most salespeople will be happy to help you get the best deals, especially if you shop when the store is quiet. During our visit to a Corningware Corelle Revere Outlet, for example, we learned that prices ending in .95, .97, or .98 meant the item was on clearance and that quantities were limited. The Betsey Johnson clerk clued us in to a shipment of new stuff coming in the following week. At Anne Fontaine the saleswoman said fall 2009 stock was set to arrive in July.

Join the club

Many outlet stores—Crabtree & Evelyn, Jockey, and Maidenform, to name a few—have frequent-shopper programs (often a rewards card that the salesperson stamps every time you buy something). They offer additional savings such as coupons after you spend a set amount of money in the store, bonus savings on your birthday, and more. Ask sales clerks for details.

Understand the return policy

They're often stricter at outlets than at retail stores of the same name. For example, L'Occitane cosmetics bought at a retail store can be returned unopened within 14 days as long as you have your receipt. But purchases at the L'Occitane outlet we visited were final sale only.

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