Outlet Shopping vs. Retail

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Bargain shoppers may be concerned about price, but they still appreciate name-brand products and enjoy staying on top of trends. Outlet shopping malls woo budget buyers with the promise of designer labels at affordable prices. To determine whether the lure actually snares savings for frugal consumers, we compared outlet shopping vs. retail. Our foray during the holiday season netted close to 30 percent off regular mall prices by shopping the outlets. As we prepared for the upcoming summer splash, we found savings worth nearly 35 percent at the outlet mall, even after retail discounts were factored in.

Our Picks

Outlet Shopping vs. Retail: A Shopper's Guide

We started the holiday shopping by compiling a list. We conducted our research ahead of the holidays, so we selected items that would make good gifts for a variety of recipients: a handbag, iPhone case, and Le Creuset pot for a wife, mother, or sister; a polo-style shirt, sweater, and wallet for a husband, father, or brother; PJs for a niece or nephew; socks and underwear for stocking stuffers; hand soap and lotion for friends or hostess gifts; and a carry-on suitcase for a gift or for holiday travel. We also included a few other things consumers might need for the holidays: towels and sheets for out-of-town guests and new holiday outfits for growing kids.

For summer, we focused on warm-weather merchandise. This list included summer staples like T-shirts and shorts, light button-down shirts and pants, running apparel, hiking gear, swimsuits, sunglasses, sandals and flip-flops, outdoor cushions, and assorted items fit for balmier times.

Each shopping expedition involved a visit to the closest outlet mall, where we had 110 stores to choose from. We found the holiday items we were looking for at Gap, Banana Republic, Gymboree, Carter's, Kate Spade, Coach, Restoration Hardware, L'Occitane, Samsonite, Le Creuset, and Calphalon. For the summer goods, we returned to Gap, Banana Republic, and Restoration Hardware, and also stopped by Tommy Bahama, Quicksilver, Nine West, Columbia, Nike, and Sunglass Hut. At each outlet, we took note of not only the prices but also the quality of the items on display. The outlets we visited were generally well-organized and had a high-end feel. Salespeople were friendly, helpful, and well-informed about their products. We chatted them up about where their stock originates and asked about return policies.

Then we headed over to the local mall for a similar walkthrough at each outlet's retail counterpart. For labels without a local retail presence (such as Tommy Bahama, Quiksilver, Nike, and Columbia), we visited Nordstrom, Macy's, PacSun, and Foot Locker and/or sorted through the brand's online site. The shopping experience at the retail mall was a bit different from the outlet mall. For one thing, the traditional mall was a fully covered, indoor space. The outlet mall, by contrast, had open-air corridors with shops on each side, a setup that lowers the cost of heating, cooling, and maintenance. Outlet malls also tend to be developed in out-of-the-way locations, so outlet chains pay lower occupancy charges than stores in regular shopping malls. Prices often reflect these lower operating costs.

At the outlet mall, the items on our holiday shopping list came to a grand total of $1,240.15, including sale prices and excluding taxes, which vary from state to state; the bottom line for our summer shopping list settled at $2,906.43, after discounts and before taxes. Granted, sale prices also vary day-to-day and mall-to-mall, but we factored them in because seemingly constant sales and promotions account for much of the savings from outlet shopping. Similar items from the retail mall set us back $1,756.62 for holiday goods and $4,453.41 for summer fare, also after figuring in sale prices but before tax. That means shopping at the outlets shaved $1,546.98 off the summer total (for savings of nearly 35 percent over retail) and $516.47 off our holiday total (about 30 percent savings). When we compared an even larger selection of merchandise suitable for holiday gift-giving that we found at the outlets and the regular mall (see chart), the percentage was almost exactly the same. In all cases, the savings were less than the average of 38 percent reported by the trade publication Value Retail News, based on an annual survey of outlet executives, but sizable nonetheless.

Price obviously isn't the only consideration in comparing an outlet mall to retail, however. Sure, outlet shopping will save you money, but will it buy you value? The answer is yes, it can, but you have to do your research if you want to spot diamonds in the rough.

First, understand what you are buying. Where does the merchandise come from? Is it offered at a discounted price because it's lower quality -- which might be OK, if the price is right -- or because it's simply a season behind? Next, try to get a sense of what an item is really worth. Familiarize yourself with the prices of retail merchandise so you can spot a bargain when you see one. Don't be misled by the manufacturer's suggested retail price, or MSRP, listed on the tag or rush into a purchase because of a limited-time discount. Finally, leverage coupons to get the best price, and always ask about the return policy before you buy.

Read on for a rundown of what to expect from outlet shopping, and some tips to help you find the best deals.

Outlet Coupons & Policies

Outlet Prices.

While standard outlet pricing is typically lower than retail, it isn't always as low as you'd think. Oftentimes outlet prices differ from retail prices by only a few dollars, especially in these tough times when mall retailers are struggling for sales.

Much of the savings at outlet stores comes from the frequent sales and promotions they run, not to mention outlet coupons. Coach outlet shoppers posting on Yelp enthuse about the generous discounts, as do visitors to the Le Creuset outlet who have posted reviews on Yelp.

Sales create urgency because they're offered for a limited time and shoppers don't want to miss out on a good deal. Salespeople at outlet stores stress that their promotions are fleeting, but when pressed many admit that factory store merchandise is almost always "on sale." The percentage off varies day-to-day, but the ultimate cost is almost always less than the price on the tag. One salesperson at the Gymboree outlet said clothing usually sells for the full outlet price for about a week after it arrives, but items are quickly marked down and remain discounted for the rest of their time in the store.

What's more, the MSRPs, or retail prices, printed on outlet tags should be viewed skeptically. Because many factory store goods never see retail shelves, there's a good chance they were never listed at those prices. We saw Restoration Hardware bath towels marked down to $18.99 at the outlet from a retail price of $24.00. However, a sales associate at the retail store told us those towels were made for the outlet; the full-price stores offered only heavier towels for $28.00 apiece. Similarly, a purple Coach Soho leather-flap bag carried an MSRP of $348.00 alongside an outlet price of $169.00, but it was manufactured for the outlet and never commanded the higher price.

Shopping at an outlet mall can save you money on designer products, but keep in mind that brand-name merchandise is expensive to begin with and won't be dirt cheap, even at the outlet. Still, by ignoring misleading MSRPs and taking advantage of sales and promotions, you can easily save 30 percent to 40 percent or more. Keep in mind that outlet stores often follow the same sales pattern retail shops do, according to Consumer Reports' ShopSmart magazine. If you approach outlet shopping with an understanding of what things cost at retail and ask questions about what you are buying, there are plenty of deals to be found.

Outlet Store Coupons.

Sales associates at outlet stores often hand out coupons as you walk in, adding to the amount you can save. On the day we visited, Coach was offering one-day-only outlet store coupons for 20 percent off and Kate Spade associates were distributing cards for 10 percent off future purchases.

We factored in such coupons when we calculated our totals but did not include additional coupons shoppers can seek out on their own. Some outlets regularly e-mail coupons and promotions to customers who sign up for their mailing lists. You may also find outlet coupons on the website of the outlet mall you plan to visit. Customers who sign up for Premium Outlets' VIP Shopper Club, for instance, receive a host of printable coupons, plus a voucher for a free coupon book. AAA members may qualify for additional discounts, as a Calphalon outlet shopper posting on Yelp discovered.

Outlet Return Policies.

Before you purchase anything at an outlet store, ask about the return policy. This is particularly important around the holidays, because the return window may close before recipients even open their presents. When we shopped, several outlets were offering special holiday return policies. The Gap outlet usually has a 90-day return policy but will accept returns until January 31 for items bought in October. The Banana Republic factory store also has a 120-day return policy on October purchases.

Carter's, Coach, and Samsonite have generous return policies all year long. If the merchandise is unused, the tags are still on, and you have your original receipt, these outlets will process your return regardless how long it has been since you purchased the item. Without a receipt, you'll get in-store credit. Other factory stores, notably L'Occitane and Restoration Hardware, are final-sale-only.

When in doubt, don't be afraid to talk to a sales associate. Merchandise exchanges are often made at the discretion of the outlet staff.

Clothing Outlets

To give you a better idea of how outlets stack up against their retail counterparts, we've broken down the stores we visited by category and compared the quality, price, and selection of each brand's offerings at the outlet mall vs. the traditional mall.

Many shoppers think that clothes purchased from factory outlet stores have manufacturing flaws, are left over from last season, or simply didn't sell in stores. The truth is that very little of the apparel at clothing outlets comes from retail. While manufacturing flaws were common when outlet shopping was first introduced, the supply-chain process is more precise and streamlined today. Because of the large number of outlet stores and the volume of clothes sold through outlets, overstock isn't sufficient for filling outlet shelves. Brands like Gap and Banana Republic, both owned by Gap Inc., manufacture lines specifically to fill this need. Gap differentiates its outlet clothing from retail by printing three small squares on the label; Banana Republic uses three small diamonds.

Knowing that clothing outlets often cut costs in manufacturing so they can sell apparel for lower prices, we examined the construction of some outlet pieces next to their retail counterparts. A women's long-sleeve V-neck tee from the Gap outlet was almost identical to the retail version.

Both were 100 percent cotton, though the material of the full-price shirt seemed a softer, finer gauge. We also noted differences in the stitching, but the main difference was the length: The mall-bought tee was a few inches longer than the outlet shirt, falling lower on the hip, and the sleeves were about an inch longer. The shirt also sold for $16.50, compared with $19.99 at the Gap outlet. However, the outlet tee was on sale for $6.99 the day we shopped.

A pair of men's boxers from the outlet seemed comparable to a retail pair in terms of fabric quality. Each was made from 100 percent cotton, and the cuts appeared similar. There were some minor stitching differences, and the waistband of the retail pair was wider and better lined. There was also an extra row of reinforcement stitching. The boxers, as well as boxer briefs, sold for $12.50 each at the Gap retail store, or two for $20. At the Gap outlet, similar cotton boxers and boxer briefs had similar prices: $9.99 to $12.99.

For summer, we found few exactly comparable items for women at outlet and retail venues. Short-sleeve cotton tees at the Gap outlet were on sale for $9.99, reduced from $19.99, compared with a starting price of $12.50 for any of three neckline styles for cotton tees at the mall store. The outlet was selling women's cotton scoop-neck tanks, also for $19.99, but with a 50 percent added discount the day we shopped; at the retail store, ribbed tanks started at $12.99. We found khaki capris in the Aubrey cut for $44.99 before the 30 percent discount at the Gap outlet and Hadley shorts in white, coral, black eyelet, and a navy heart print that were priced at $34.99 plus a 30 percent discount. Back at the retail store, cropped zip pants carried a price tag of $59.95 and solid canvas shorts or boyfriend roll-up shorts were fetching $39.95.

Substantial discounts at the Gap outlet on men's summer clothing yielded huge savings over similar, but not identical, merchandise carried by the retail location. Cargo shorts at the outlet came with 20 percent off the $39.99 price, and a 25 percent reduction was tacked on to $34.99 plaid cotton shorts. At retail, Gap was offering double-pocket cargo shorts for $39.95 and plaid flat-front shorts for $44.95. Basic khakis could be had for $49.99 plus 50 percent off at the outlet compared with $49.95 for classic straight-fit khakis and $36.99 for classic relaxed-fit khakis (in limited colors) at the retail store. Short-sleeve solid polos were marked down to $9.99 from $29.99 at the outlet while hot new pique polos, available only at the retail store, were going for $25.00 each the day we checked prices, but only if you bought two or more.

At Banana Republic, we also looked at merchandise for men and women. The Banana Republic factory store offered attractive savings on men's underwear and socks. Boxers at the outlet were $12.99 a pair compared with $18.50 at retail, and boxer briefs ran $14.99 at the outlet and $19.50 at retail. Full-price men's dress socks were five for $20 at the Banana Republic factory store, less than the cost of two pairs at a retail price of $10.50. In the women's section we found three-packs of socks for $7.99; three pairs cost $15 at retail.

Several sought-after summer items for men were available at the outlet and retail locations. Cotton cargo shorts were $44.99 a pair plus 60 percent off compared with a retail version at $54.50. Banana Republic factory store shoppers could find thick, cotton, striped polos for $36.99 plus 40 percent off, and lighter-weight versions for $34.99 (solid) and $36.99 (striped), plus a price cut of 50 percent. Male patrons of the mall store could choose among pique polos in any of 24 colors for $39.50 each, slub-knit or bold-striped polos for $44.50 each, and luxe-touch solid cotton polos with a starting sale price of $34.99. Men's graphic tees at the outlet were marked down to $9.99 from $26.99, compared with the $34.50 retail versions. Short-sleeve linen button-down shirts sold for $44.99 plus 40 percent off at the Banana Republic factory store, while long-sleeve linen/cotton-blend button-downs cost $69.50 at the mall.

Our holiday and summer shopping expeditions to Banana Republic also included street clothes for women. Women's button-neck sweaters cost $59.99 at the Banana Republic factory store and hook-closure cardigans with sequin detailing were $69.99. Prices at the regular mall were nearly identical: $59.50 for cable-knit, button-neck crew sweaters and $69.50 for cardigans. Long-sleeve, scoop-neck tees were $29.99 at the factory store and $29.50 at retail.

Summer pickings for women showed some distinctions in both style and pricing between outlet and retail. Banana Republic's factory store stocked women's cotton shorts for $19.99, marked down from $39.99; similar shorts at the retail mall started at $39.50 for rolled styles and $49.50 for those made with a pique cotton weave. Martin-fit straight-leg pants went for $59.99 plus 30 percent off at the outlet, while Martin-fit cuffed cropped pants sold for $79.50 at retail and Martin-fit sleek trousers ranged in price from $69.99 to $79.50, depending on color. A simple linen sheath in white or red-orange at the Banana Republic factory store went for $89.99 plus another 40 percent discount, and a patterned wrap dress in red, black, and khaki was $69.99 plus an additional 50 percent off. At retail, similarly styled cotton sheaths, such as the Lena textured and the Sophia sheath, cost $140.00 and $150.00, respectively.

At first glance, Banana Republic and Gap outlet prices are often only a dollar or two lower -- or even higher -- than retail. However, outlet merchandise is nearly always on sale or promotion. The price you pay is generally 25 percent to 70 percent less than the ticketed cost. For example, men's polo-style shirts were listed for $29.50 at the Gap outlet, the same price as the retail store, but during our holiday shopping trip they were reduced to $12.99. At the same time, they were also 30 percent off at the retail store, bringing the price there to $20.65. If the retail store is having a particularly good sale, you may be able to get a better-quality product for about the same price -- or even cheaper. A women's wool/polyester-blend cardigan sweater listed for $44.95 was half off at the Gap retail store, while 100 percent cotton cardigans went for $39.99 at the outlet.

The quality differences between Gap and Banana Republic outlet and retail clothing seem consistent from season to season. Retail merchandise seemed to incorporate higher-grade fabrics, higher stitch counts, and more complex embellishments; retail styles seemed truer to runway trends. On the other hand, particularly in the case of Banana Republic, the less expensive factory store pieces were mostly machine or hand washable. Much of Banana Republic's retail clothing is dry clean only.

Tommy Bahama, a tropical favorite, is a popular stop for many consumers trolling for summer merchandise. During our visit to the outlet store we recognized pieces we'd actually tried on at retail a year previously. The items we checked out were retail quality, but the discounts didn't match those we had seen at other brand-name outlet stores. The day we shopped, all men's and women's clothing was marked 30 percent off MSRP.

We first looked at men's clothing. At the outlet, a signature Tommy Bahama button-down shirt in a style dubbed Fern Notice sold for $82.60 and one called Shake Your Bambooty cost $77.00. Given the absence of a Tommy Bahama retail venue at our mall, we comparison shopped at Nordstrom, which priced Hawaiian shirts with the same styling but different patterns (e.g., Leafing In The Wind and Garden of Hope and Courage) at $118.00. Men's Trinidad shorts were $66.50 at the Tommy Bahama outlet while two styles of Tommy Bahama shorts, Ashore Thing and Flying Fishbone, were tagged $98.00 at Nordstrom. Tommy Bahama Relax tees were going for $29.40 at the outlet, including 30 percent off, and $48.00 on Nordstrom's shelves.

Women's styles by Tommy Bahama were harder to find in the retail department store, so we checked online offerings. At the outlet, we priced Snappy poplin shorts at $54.60, marked down from a $78.00 MSRP; Tommy Bahama's online retail store offered Two Palms and Jet Away Twill 5-inch shorts for $78.00. We discovered a teal-striped cotton knit T-shirt dress for $61.60 and an Acanthus Leaves Dress for $89.60 at the outlet. Online, a short, striped tank dress carried a price of $88.00 and a Supima cotton Hibiscus Floral sundress was $128.00. We did find a few Tommy Bahama women's items on the Nordstrom racks that were reduced by about 30 percent. The Ziggurat Tunic was marked down to $98.90 from $148.00, for example, and the Sand Piper silk easy button-down shirt could be had for $82.90, slashed from $128.00.

In the case of Tommy Bahama, there was no discernible quality difference between outlet and retail goods. Styling was the main difference here, since the outlet goods were a season or two behind what we found on retail racks. That said, we judged Tommy Bahama's style to be more timeless and less trend-dependent, so pieces from a year or two ago didn't seem outdated.

Kids Clothing Outlets

Gymboree follows the model of companies such as Gap Inc., manufacturing lines specifically for its kids clothing outlets. Gymboree reproduces collections for its outlets a year after they come out in the regular mall stores, so the 2011 collection at the outlet is nearly the same as the 2010 collection from the flagship stores -- but not quite. Our researcher had a couple of items from last year's retail line and compared them with this year's outlet versions. A red, cable-knit sweater dress from the mall store was thick and soft and sported two front pockets with faux-crystal buttons. The 2011 outlet version was woven from considerably thinner material, had no pockets or embellishments, and was plain rather than cable-knit on the back. A boys' red, three-quarter-zip sweater from the 2011 outlet collection had only one horizontal stripe of argyle pattern, compared with the full-front argyle design of the 2010 retail sweater, which was also about double the thickness.

At the retail store, we found a black, red, and gold tartan dress with an ivory bodice and red bow waistband for $56.95 and tights with pink and red bows for $14.95. A similar outfit could be found for less at the Gymboree outlet, where we saw a red tulle dress with rosettes for $39.99 and coordinating bow tights for $9.99. For boys, a brown, argyle, button-neck sweater was $36.95 at the mall; a white dress shirt cost $29.95; brown herringbone pants were $32.95; and dress socks were $3.25 a pair. At the lower-priced Gymboree outlet, we found a red, argyle, three-quarter-zip sweater for $27.99; a red-and-black plaid dress shirt for $18.99; grey herringbone dress pants for $24.99; and argyle dress socks for $3.99. In addition, the clothing at the outlet was 25 percent off.

The other kids clothing outlet we examined, Carter's, claims to run not outlet stores but rather retail stores at outlet malls. The company sells the same merchandise at its outlet locations as it does in big-box, warehouse, and department stores. While the list prices on Carter's outlet items are generally the same as you'll find at other retailers, the outlet stores run near-constant promotions and rarely sell items at full list price. They also send out discount coupons regularly, entitling those on their mailing list to save 20 percent or 25 percent off outlet store purchases. Another popular children's brand frequently found at outlet malls, OshKosh B'Gosh, is owned by the same parent company and operates similarly.

Interestingly, when we priced out full-price Carter's merchandise at a Dillard's department store and the kids clothing outlet, Dillard's not only kept up but often came out far cheaper. For instance, three-piece Little Layette sets weren't on sale at the Carter's outlet store and cost $20.00, compared with $10.99 at Dillard's. However, the department store carries only sizes up to 24 months and does not offer separates such as jeans and T-shirts. The Carter's outlet store features a much larger selection of merchandise, and clothing is available in sizes up to 6x for girls and 7 for boys.

Summer shopping for kids necessitated a quick stop back at the Gap. Although the kids clothing section was chaotic during our outlet excursion, we managed to find boys' graphic tees for $14.99 plus 40 percent off, and girls' graphic tees for $14.99 with another 20 percent discount. Full-priced boys' and girls' graphic tees were $14.95, but the retail store had a selection of girls' tees on sale for as low as $7.99 and some boys' tees were reduced to $8.99.

Swimwear Outlets

Most everyone needs swimwear for the summer, so we scoped out the outlet and retail offerings for men, women, teens, and kids at Quiksilver, Gap, and Tommy Bahama.

These days, two-piece women's swimsuits, including bikini styles, are often sold as separates. The outlet for Quiksilver, which specializes in casual and sports-oriented garments, was selling a women's/junior's Roxy teal-striped bikini with tie-side bottom for $19.99 and halter-style top for $24.99, but a promotion on the day we visited set the price for two swimwear pieces at $34.99. At the local mall's PacSun retail store, a Roxy string-top bikini was selling for $29.50 and the bottom for $29.50. But PacSun was also running a special -- 50 percent off a bikini bottom with the purchase of a bikini top -- that netted a total tab of $44.25. At Nordstrom, we found a Roxy Penny Lane bandeau top for $48.00 and a pair of '70s low-rider bikini bottoms in the same style for $38.00, bringing the total outlay to $86.00.

There were only small price differences on women's swimwear between Gap outlet and retail venues. At the former, bikini tops and bottoms were tagged at $24.99 a piece compared with $38.95 for bikini tops and $36.95 for bikini bottoms at the retail unit. Whereas the outlet was offering additional 20 percent discounts on all swimwear, the retail store had marked down some styles to as low as $14.99 for tops and $12.99 for bottoms. One-piece swimsuits at the outlet were tagged at $44.99 ($35.99 with the discount) compared with $59.95 at the full-price location, while cover-ups were going for $31.99 at the outlet and started at $34.95 at the mall store.

Price differentials were far greater on Tommy Bahama swimwear. A women's one-piece suit, Pearl Solids in Valencia orange, carried a $64.00 tag at the outlet mall after a 50 percent discount off the MSRP while the $142.00 black-and-white Palms one-piece dropped to $71.00. A similar Tommy Bahama Pearl one-piece retailed for $126.00 at Nordstrom and at Tommy Bahama online.

Moving over to the men's aisles, we spotted Quiksilver Mixed Words 22 and Tsunami 22 board shorts for $34.99 at the outlet. Online, Quiksilver carried board shorts, such as the Sideshow Hybrid and Crash A Lot 22-inch styles, at the full price of $49.50 each, and the Gamma Ray 21-inch and Padang board shorts for $52.00 each. Swim trunks at the Gap outlet were marked down to $19.99 from $34.99 and a 20 percent swimwear discount brought the trunks to a $15.99 price point. Pickings were slim at the retail Gap, however, where board shorts, the only style of men's swimwear available, cost $39.95. We found trunks, like the Out of My Sway, at the Tommy Bahama outlet for $50.40 while a comparable pair, the Tommy Bahama Relax Veranda Rights swimsuit, sold for $58.00 at Nordstrom.

Among the stores we shopped at, only Gap carried children's swimwear. Girls' one-piece suits were $24.99 at the outlet, or $17.49 after an extra 30 percent off. Boys' swim shorts ranged in price from $19.95 to $24.95, with additional discounts of 20 percent to 30 percent, depending on the style. Girls' one-pieces and bikinis and boys' swim trunks retailed for $19.95 on up, although sales lowered the cost of some to $14.95.

Last but not least, beach towels. We found these at Quiksilver, which set the outlet price at $16.99 and online price at $30.00 to $47.00.

Perceived quality and style differences between outlet and retail inventory varied by brand. The selection at the Quiksilver outlet includes some pieces made specifically for the factory stores (designated by a "Y" in front of the style number) and some past-season merchandise that didn't sell at retail. Outlet store-only pieces are typically fabricated using designs from the previous year and quality seemed good.

Swimwear at the Gap outlet, like the outlet clothing, appeared to be a step below retail offerings. Men's and women's outlet suits were half the price of retail, however, making them a good buy for those who don't swim often or who simply prefer a new suit every season. However, we did find several discounted retail suits online that were cheaper than outlet swimsuits, so keep an eye out for Gap retail sales before buying outlet.

The quality of Tommy Bahama's swimsuits, again like the brand's clothing, was equal whether items were purchased at the outlet or at retail. The difference here involved styling. Although we didn't consider outlet styles to be outdated, we did sense that Tommy Bahama styles in general are less likely to appeal to young adults or teens.

Footwear Outlets

In our search for frugal footwear to liberate winter-weary toes, we stopped at Quiksilver, Gap, and Nine West. We took stock of open-air sandals and flip-flops and then compared them to similar styles at retail. Additional discounts off the stated price were standard at the Gap outlet, and Nine West was running a "buy one, get one 50 percent off" promotion the day we shopped.

At the outlet mall, we found plenty of cheap flip-flops. In the men's section, Quiksilver offered several for styles for $12.99 and Gap had rubber flip-flops for $7.99, plus another 40 percent discount for a final price of $3.99. On the retail side, Quiksilver online sold flip-flops similar to those at the outlet but priced them at $16.00 to $24.00 a pair and Gap carried men's contrast stripe flip-flops for $14.95.

For women, the Gap outlet priced rubber flip-flops at $7.49, and threw a 50 percent discount on top, for a bottom-line price of $3.75. The Nine West outlet was selling a leather Lela flip-flop with rhinestone embellishments for $49.99 a pair. Going retail at Gap would cost $16.95 for rubber flip-flops and $49.00 at Nine West, where we spotted a starfish jelly thong, Anita, in a choice of five colors.

Outlet and mall pricing for children's flip-flops were remarkably similar. Boys' rubber flip-flops were $6.99 at the Gap outlet with an additional 40 percent off, bringing the price to $4.19 a pair; girls' rubber flip-flops cost $9.99, or $7.49 after another 25 percent off. The retail Gap promoted rubber flip-flops for boys at $7.95 and girls' styles started at $8.95, with a few sale SKUs for $7.99 a pair.

We also searched for seasonal footwear trends, such as wedge heels, color blocking, and the patent-leather look. At the Nine West outlet, we noticed the I Want Color color-block patent heel in orange, pink, and purple that was selling for $69.99. We also homed in on a wedge heel, available in a host of bright colors; the Smiley cork wedge with a synthetic leather upper was fetching $39.99 after a markdown from $59.99. Nine West at the mall had a peep-toe Mary Jane with pastel color blocking, the Top Shoe, marked down to $69.00 from $89.00. The Act Out platform sandal, also brightly colored synthetic leather and cork, much like our outlet find, was reduced to $69.00 from $89.00, as well. The day of our shopping excursion the Nine West retail store cut the price by 15 percent with the purchase of two or more pairs.

The outlet mall proved a cheaper choice for inexpensive flip-flops than the retail mall. For sandals, however, the price gap was narrower. Shoppers could easily end up spending the same amount of money on a Nine West outlet wedge as on its retail cousin, for example. Only by purchasing multiple pairs of shoes or by taking advantage of clearance finds would you realize significant savings at an outlet footwear store.

When assessing the quality of outlet sandals versus retail, we generally found that retail footwear looked more expensive. Rubber flip-flops at the mall Gap incorporated more detail and embellishment, and sported thicker, more contoured soles than the outlet versions. Nine West sandals at retail also featured more detail, such as contrast piping and fabric-covered buckles. Retail pieces used more real and fewer synthetic leathers, and synthetics had more of a real-leather texture. Outlet shoes presented with shinier finishes and simpler styling.

Accessories Outlets

We found the accessories on our holiday shopping list at the Kate Spade New York and Coach factory stores. The mix of merchandise was similar at both accessories outlets -- handbags, wallets, smartphone cases, jewelry, scarves. Both Kate Spade and Coach sell primarily made-for-outlet products at their factory stores, particularly when it comes to handbags. However, each brand does receive some liquidation merchandise from retail stores. Styles that are a season behind and have already been marked down in retail stores are sent to the outlets to make room for new retail stock.

According to salespeople we spoke with at both accessories outlets, the leather and hardware used to manufacture made-for-outlet goods are the same materials used in items sold at retail, but outlet items are simplified. The retail merchandise we saw for both brands featured more embellishment and generally had a more luxe appearance than the made-for-outlet goods. Outlet styles were often more classic and predictable versus trendy and modern. (If you're wondering whether a Coach bag was made for the factory store, look for an F in the style number on the label inside.)

We found a basic, black leather tote called the Wellesley at the Kate Spade outlet that would make a great splurge. It sold for $325.00 and was an additional 30 percent off the day we shopped. The closest comparable bag we found at Nordstrom was the Knightsbridge Mod Little Helena shoulder bag, which was slightly smaller and had longer straps. It sold for $395.00 and was far more detailed than the Wellesley, with shiny, croc-embossed leather, gold-tone chain straps, and an etched metal brand plate, compared with the leather one on the outlet tote. The retail bag featured two inside compartments, plus additional zipper pockets, and closed with a magnetic tab, while the outlet bag had only one large interior compartment that zipped shut.

At the Coach outlet, we found a liquidation bag, recently sent from retail, that stood out from the crowd. This particular purse was in the Maggie style, a silver/grey, croc-embossed leather shoulder bag from the label's Madison collection. It was marked $598.00 but was selling for 30 percent off that day. We were also handed a coupon in the store for an additional 20 percent off, which brought the price to just about $335.00. At Coach in the regular mall, we found a more opulent Maggie bag, also from the current Madison collection, made of leather embossed with the Op Art "C" design, available in two color combinations. It was a similar size and cost $498.00.

For the gadget-minded, we found iPhone 4 hard cases with multicolored stripes or black-and-white polka dots for $30.00 to $40.00 a piece at the Kate Spade outlet. At Nordstrom, nearly identical cases with different designs also sold for $40.00 each. The Coach outlet offered zippered universal cases designed to carry smartphones, cell phones, or cameras. We found a grey/black one with the classic "C" pattern for $88.00 and a sequin case from Coach's Poppy line for $68.00. With the day's sales and coupons, the cases would have cost $47.00 and $39.00 respectively. At the Coach store at the mall, we found a Julia nylon universal case in the Op Art "C" pattern for $48.00, about the same as the discounted price for the similar case at the outlet, and a Poppy sequin universal case for $68.00, the same as the full price at the outlet.

Kate Spade bangles at both the outlet store and at Nordstrom were elegant enough for adults yet fun and fresh enough for tough-to-please teens. A black-and-white enamel bangle at the Kate Spade outlet ran $88.00 before discounts, but the outlet offered an extra 30 percent off the day we were there. At the Nordstrom jewelry counter, spade-hinge bangles made of gold and colored enamel with a gold spade closure also cost $88.00 each.

At the Coach outlet, a silk scarf with a signature "C" zebra print carried an MSRP of $48.00 and cost $29.00, while similarly sized silk scarves in various patterns ran $98.00 at retail. Coach also carries a few items specifically for men. A Heritage Stripe collection wallet at the outlet was listed at $148.00 but cost $82.88 after discounts and coupons were applied. A Heritage Stripe passcase ID wallet similar in design and nearly identical in layout sold for $148.00 at the Coach retail store.

Accessories also went into our summer shopping basket. Bold and bright fun items like bangles and beach-ready bags appeal to many women, but who wants to shell out big bucks for something with a short shelf life? To hold costs in check, we turned again to three stalwart brands: Banana Republic, Tommy Bahama, and Nine West.

At the Banana Republic factory store, we saw earrings, bracelets, and necklaces featuring the sea blues and corals that are currently in vogue. A long turquoise and gold drop necklace with opaque glass stones was valued at $24.99 plus an additional 40 percent off. We also found turquoise chandelier drop earrings for $19.99 plus a 40 percent discount, and a glossy white plastic bangle with clear glass stones on clearance for $9.99. The retail store carried a gold-plated aqua focal necklace for $49.50, turquoise oval drop earrings for $39.50, and a gold-plated dot bangle with white enamel surface and glass stones, marked down to $34.99 from its original $49.50 asking price.

The Tommy Bahama outlet was selling a raffia Campbell tote with leather handles for $82.60; a very similar tote crocheted from raffia and metal fiber, the Small Sur, sold for $118.00 at retail. A straw-look tote for $39.99 at the Nine West outlet came in navy, orange, pink, natural, and black. The closest retail version was a raffia and orange synthetic leather tote reduced to $69.00 from $99.99.

Outlet store prices on summer accessories were far lower than their retail counterparts, although the disparity between the two Tommy Bahama venues was less dramatic. But consider what you're getting. To our eyes, the outlet pieces appeared less well made, particularly the jewelry. The exception was the Tommy Bahama outlet tote, which seemed on par with the label's retail version. If you're looking for a one-season addition to your accessory wardrobe, an outlet purchase is probably the smart choice. If you have sensitivities to certain metals, or you want a piece that will hold up over time, wait for a sale and buy retail.

Bedding and Bath Outlets

Outlet Linens.

The sheets we found at the Restoration Hardware outlet were overstock and liquidation items from retail stores, so they offered the same quality. On the downside, the selection of outlet linens was sparse. We did manage to find a queen sheet set with yellow trim from the Italian Satin Stitch Hotel Bedding line. The MSRP was $249.00, but the sheets were marked down to $148.99 at the outlet. Similarly, a standard pillow sham in the same line had an MSRP of $79.00 but was $46.99 at the outlet. We confirmed those prices at the mall store, matching up the line, the size, and the thread count. While the outlet was far cheaper, the retail store offered more pieces and a host of colors to choose from. We could not locate standard cases at the outlet, and classic colors such as white and ivory were nowhere to be found.

The Restoration Hardware outlet also had a wall full of Paradigm 602 towels made from 100 percent Turkish cotton. Bath sheets were $31.99, bath towels $18.99, hand towels $12.49, washcloths $5.49, and bath mats $18.99. The towels, unlike the sheets, were available in a variety of colors, including white and khaki.

At the full-price mall store, the Ultimate Turkish Towels were thicker, with 802 grams of cotton per square meter. They came in 31 colors and cost $54.00 for a bath sheet, $28.00 for a bath towel, $18.00 for a hand towel, $9.00 for a washcloth, and $26.00 for a bath mat. The salesperson we spoke with said the Restoration Hardware outlet sells its own line of towels that never see retail shelves. Indeed, the lighter-weight Turkish towels were nowhere to be found in the retail store or online. That would also explain the wide selection we found at the outlet and the availability of popular colors.

Outlet Lotions and Soaps.

At the L'Occitane outlet, the saleswoman behind the counter told us that most of the outlet's inventory is made up largely of discontinued products. A four-pack of 3.5-ounce shea butter soaps sold for $16.00 at the outlet, while the same size set was $28.00 at retail, but the latter included more popular scents.

The L'Occitane outlet was selling travel-size toiletries, such as lotions, shampoos, and body wash, for $4.00 each, compared with $8.00 to $9.00 in the retail store. A promotion the day we were there offered five travel items and a travel-size pouch for $20.00. According to the salesperson, many of the travel-size items are overstock from hotels and were never sold at retail.

While the discontinued stock at the L'Occitane outlet is cheaper than at the mall, the outlet also sells many of L'Occitane's most popular products at retail prices. For instance, you can buy a 150 ml tube of the brand's top-selling shea butter hand cream at the outlet for the same $26.00 you'd pay at the retail store. If you are unsure whether an item is truly a bargain, don't be afraid to ask questions. The salespeople we talked to were up-front about whether a given product was discontinued, made-for-outlet, or full-price retail.

Outdoor Entertaining.

As the days grow longer and warmer, there are more opportunities to bust out the barbecue and invite friends and family to partake. This may also be the moment to freshen up patio or porch furniture with new pillows, especially if they were left outside all winter. Restoration Hardware is a mecca for outdoor decor, and once again, buying outlet is the cheapest way to go.

The day we shopped customers at the outlet store were offered an additional 20 percent off everything. That special reduced the $47.99 price of Perennials Outdoor Collection Cote D'Azur Stripe pillow covers in the 20" x 20" size to $38.39. The outdoor pillow insert, sold separately, was tagged at $13.50, or $10.80 after applying the 20 percent discount. By contrast, the exact same Perennials Outdoor Collection Cote D'Azur Stripe 20" x 20" pillow cover, in the same soleil color, cost $58.00 on sale at the retail store, reduced from $69.00. The identical outdoor pillow insert cost $15.00 at retail, marked down from $18.00.

Luggage and Cookware Outlets

Outlet Luggage.

At the Samsonite company store, a salesperson told us that outlet luggage is made specifically for the company store and is slightly higher quality than Samsonite luggage sold at retail. For example, she said, the handle of a bag found at a department store might be attached with one bolt, whereas the same handle might be attached to an outlet bag with three bolts. The company store also carries Samsonite's Black Label, its highest-end pieces. These are not available in department stores and are typically more expensive than luggage sold at retail.

We found a family of lightweight, soft-side luggage at the Samsonite company store called the On Air collection, which the saleswoman said was a new line that probably wasn't carried at retail yet. It was made from Tricore nylon and featured three pieces: a 21-inch carry-on spinner for $199.95, a 25-inch for $229.95, and a 29-inch for $259.95.

Indeed, we were unable to find the same line at Macy's, though we did find a similar family of soft-side, expandable, upright luggage called the Lift collection. It was crafted from Samsonite's Tricore polyester and had two wheels per bag, rather than the four spinner wheels of the On Air collection. The list prices were higher than those we saw at the Samsonite company store for nearly the same size pieces: a 21-inch upright was $300.00, a 24-inch was $360.00, and a 29-inch was $420.00. However, the Lift collection was on sale the day we were at Macy's for lower-than-outlet prices. The 21-inch upright was $149.99, the 24-inch was $179.99, and the 29-inch was $209.99.

Cookware Outlets.

Like many outlet stores, the Le Creuset outlet carries a mixed bag of merchandise. The colorful stoneware is the same as you'll find on retail shelves, and the prices aren't much different. We saw a 9-by-12-inch rectangular baker at the outlet for $50.00 and the same dish online at Macy's for $54.99. However, the Le Creuset outlet store offers a much larger selection of stoneware and far more colors to choose from.

In addition to stoneware, you'll find row upon row of the cast-iron cookware Le Creuset is famous for. Most of the cast-iron pieces sold at the outlet are "second quality," which means the integrity of the vessel is uncompromised, but there are cosmetic flaws. Often the glaze is uneven, the color is slightly off, or there are other small imperfections. We had the salesperson guide us through a stack of second-quality cookware, and what flaws we could see were minor and scarcely detectable. We likely never would have noticed them had someone not pointed them out.

A second-quality 5.5-quart round Dutch oven was $199.00 at the Le Creuset outlet and a 7.25-quart was $233.00. At Williams-Sonoma, a 5.5-quart round Dutch oven cost $245.00 and the 7.25-quart size cost $285.00. We also checked Macy's, where we found the 5.5-quart for $239.99 and the 7.25-quart for $279.99.

In addition to full-price stoneware and second-quality cast-iron cookware, discontinued colors can also be procured at the Le Creuset outlet. We found kiwi-colored stoneware and chestnut-tinted Dutch ovens marked down significantly.

Over at the Calphalon outlet, much of the merchandise we saw was "open stock," meaning that it was sold individually, rather than as part of a set, and came without a box. One such item was a three-quart saute pan with a lid from the Contemporary line selling for $60.00; the same pan cost $100 more at Williams-Sonoma. On the other hand, a Unison open-stock 3-quart saucepan with a lid was $175.00 at the Calphalon outlet, the same price you'd pay for a boxed item at Williams-Sonoma. However, the Calphalon outlet offers an extra 20 percent off all open-stock items, which put the pan at $140.00, or $35 cheaper than retail.

The clearance section harbors dented and dinged pots and pans for 50 percent off or more (final sale), as well as boxed sets of overstock pots and pans for sharply discounted prices. A 10-piece set of Calphalon Contemporary non-stick pots and pans sold for $199.99 at the Calphalon outlet, while an 11-piece set cost $399.95 at Williams-Sonoma and $449.99 at Macy's, although it was marked down to $399.99 the day we shopped.

We were assured by salespeople at both cookware outlets that all merchandise carries the same limited lifetime warranty as full-price retail merchandise, even when items are sold without packaging.

Sports Outlets, Sunglasses Outlets

Nothing says "hello, sunshine" like a sporty pair of shades. Between clumsiness, forgetfulness, and rough handling, it can be hard to hang on to a pair of sunglasses from one year to the next. So we compared goods and prices at outlet and retail Sunglass Hut locations.

Because much of the selection at the chain's outlet store consisted of regular-priced merchandise, we headed straight to the clearance section. There we found polarized, plastic framed Ray-Ban sunglasses on sale for $144.98; a comparable pair of classic, polarized wayfarers at the mall shop was selling for $199.95. A pair of discount Coach shades, tinted brown with the Coach grid on the arms, was selling for $114.98 at the outlet while Coach's Emma style, either in black with a grey grid, or brown tint with a brown grid, were $138.00 at retail. Ralph sunglasses, by Ralph Lauren, originally priced at $99.75 were going for $74.78 at the outlet; a similar pair of Ralph by Ralph Lauren carried a $124.95 price tag at retail.

The day we stopped in, the Sunglass Hut outlet was running a "buy one pair of clearance glasses, get another clearance pair free." Although we found some OK deals, proceed with caution. Only some sunglasses at the outlet are discounted -- the rest go for full price. Many of the clearance styles at the outlet were uninspired in design or didn't particularly flatter the face. There were a few standouts, but most of the designs we liked were full price and many were also available at the retail location. In the end, it seemed that the quality of the outlet sunglasses didn't suffer, only the attractiveness.

Hiking Gear.

Venturing into the great outdoors, whether on a family camping expedition or a local day hike, is an enjoyable and inexpensive summer activity. Bringing the right gear can make the difference between memorable and miserable. We glanced through the racks at the outlet Columbia stores and checked online to determine how far the cost of family hiking basics would set us back.

Clothing was the primary order of business. We liked the SilverRidge II convertible pants, which turn from lightweight hiking pants to shorts thanks to the zipper at each knee. The men's pants were going for $44.90 at the outlet store, the boys' version for $24.90, and the similar women's Silver Ridge convertible straight leg pant was also $44.90. Columbia's website priced the men's Silver Ridge II convertible pant at $55.00, the boys' version at $40.00, and the women's at $60.00.

A women's Psych to Hike button-down shirt was $34.90 at the outlet store compared with $55.00 for the plaid Silver Ridge button-down and $50.00 for solid colors at the online store. The outlet was also selling a women's Benton Springs full-zip fleece for $29.90 that cost $48.00 retail; the men's Steens Mountain full-zip fleece adhered to the same pricing pattern. A toddler girl/boy Benton Springs fleece sold for $17.50 at the outlet and $24.00 online. Men could pick up a Tectonic Softshell windproof hybrid jacket $69.99, marked down from $99.90, at the outlet or pay $130.00 at Columbia's online venue. A Silver Ridge moisture-wicking tee for boys cost $12.90 at the outlet and $20.00 at retail.

For day hikes, we found a black and orange Trail Grinder backpack with breathable mesh straps and back with an outlet price of $109.95 versus $139.00 retail. Select women's Shasta la Vista hiking shoes sold for $30.00 on clearance at the outlet while updated colors of the same style were fetching $100.00 online.

The spread between outlet and retail prices on Columbia's stock ranged wildly. We saw the same or similar products bearing prices that differed by as much as 70 percent or as little as 20 percent. Although items consistently cost less at the outlet, quality at least looked equal to the online offerings, making the Columbia outlet the venue of choice for cheap hiking gear.

Running Gear.

Whether you're a triathlete, a charity event participant, or a novice exerciser, chances are your running frequency increases as the temperatures rise. If you're prowling around for new workout wear, the Nike outlet is a good starting point. We found similar merchandise at Foot Locker and Macy's retail operations.

A complete outfit for men at Nike included a pair of black and grey Dri-Fit running shorts for $29.99, a long-sleeve black moisture-wicking shirt for $29.99, and a pair of men's Air Max 2011 shoes for $129.99 (a cheaper choice was the Zoom Vomero+ 6 shoes for $99.99). The comparable clothing package at Macy's cost $26.99 (originally $32.00) for Dri-Fit running shorts, $60.00 for the Element Dri-Fit half-zip running shirt or $19.99 (reduced from $25.00) for a Pro Core Dri-Fit short-sleeve crew shirt. Nike Air Max 2012 shoes were available at Foot Locker for $170.00, which also carried the Vomero+ 6 shoe for $130.00.

We priced out similar running gear for women. The Nike outlet featured a pair of running shorts for $24.99, or $40.00 for two. A Dri-Fit running tee was selling for $27.99 and a Dri-Fit running bra tank was priced at $39.99. Women's Nike Zoom Vomero+ 6 shoes ran at $99.99. Back at Macy's, Nike Tempo running shorts started at $32.00, a Nike Miller Dri-Fit short-sleeve crew-neck tee was $38.00, and a sleeveless racerback knit tank, once $48.00, was reduced to $37.99. Foot Locker at the mall carried the women's Nike Vomero+ 6 for $130.00.

Boys' shoes, like the Dart 8 ($34.99), T-Run 2 Alt ($19.99 on sale), and an older style of Jordans ($39.99), lined the walls at the Nike outlet. This location also stocked lots of choices for girls, such as the Impax Renegade, on sale for $34.99, and the Nike Advantage, for $29.99. Foot Locker was retailing a youth-sized Nike Air Jordan for $49.99, originally $70.00; Free Run 2.0 youth running shoes started at $75.00; and the youth-sized Nike LunarGlide3 was reduced to $59.99 from $82.00.

We walked away from Nike with outlet deals that beat the retail offerings, but not by a mile. The shoes offered the best savings by far, but there was a lot of play in actual savings depending on the style. Athletic shoes from retail seasons past were of the same quality as those sold at the mall, just slightly behind the times in styling. Clothing construction seemed to be good overall. Some pieces were made specifically for the outlet and others were overstock goods from retail, but the differences between the two weren't obvious to us. Some T-shirts and workout gear, for instance, were perhaps less cutting-edge than current retail but fine for hitting the gym.

Gina Briles

Gina K. Briles writes family, household, and shopping-related product reviews. She is a displaced Jayhawk and a coffee addict living in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, two small children, and Vizsla dog.

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