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How to Save Money at Outlet Stores

The best deals are often in the back of the shop

spinner image Display of women's handbags for sale in a Dooney and Bourke factory outlet store.
Universal Images Group / Getty Images

All of the upheaval in the retail industry in recent years — from supply chain challenges to labor shortages and uncertainty about consumer shopping patterns — has resulted in an influx of more merchandise at outlet and discount stores.

“We are definitely seeing products hit the outlet channels sooner than they had in the past because of some of the over-inventory situations in traditional retail stores,” says Leslie Swanson, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Tanger Factory Outlet Centers.

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That, in turn, provides more opportunity for consumers to find bargains at such stores. But it’s important to have a strategy when outlet shopping, so keep these tips in mind.

Go to an outlet mall

While you can still find savings at stand-alone outlet stores, hitting up an outlet shopping center means you can take advantage of deals from different types of retailers and a variety of brands in one trip. Plus, the shopping centers themselves often have promotions or additional deals available to shoppers. Some outlet mall operators, for example, have free coupon books available in the visitor center or a loyalty program that provides additional discounts for purchases at some of their stores.

Visit on a holiday weekend

Like many other retailers, outlet stores tend to increase their discounts during long holiday weekends such as the Fourth of July, Labor Day and Presidents Day. Budgeting expert Andrea Woroch suggests visiting outlet centers at the start of such a weekend (or the Friday before) in order to beat the crowds and to find the best selection of merchandise available for sale.

Some of the outlet centers are fairly massive, but they make their maps and directories available online. Take some time before you go to scope out which store you want to hit, so you can be more efficient as you shop.

Start with the sale section

Typically located in the back of the store, the clearance rack at an outlet store may offer even larger savings than those found in the rest of the store.

“You’re getting the sale price on an already discounted item,” says Kimberly Palmer, a spokesperson with the personal finance website NerdWallet. “Then you can layer coupons or promotional codes on top of that, and you’re going to often end up getting 50 percent or more off.”

Given the appealing prices, however, you may find a sparser selection in this section, and you may not always find the size or color that you need.

Read the fine print on return policies

Many outlet stores have stricter return policies than their traditional retail counterparts. That could mean a shorter window for returns or that some (or all) items in a store are “final sale only,” meaning that you won’t have the option to return the product later.

Even if the store has a strong return policy, you’ll want to keep geography in mind. If you’re shopping at an outlet center while you’re on vacation or far from home, completing a return could become more of a challenge.

“The biggest problem with outlet shopping is that you’re going to a location with so many stores and so many brands, and that can make it easy to overspend, particularly if you invested some effort into getting there,” Palmer says. “You don’t want to end up buying things you don’t want, especially if you can’t return them.”

Try everything on

Given the strict return policies, it’s important to make sure you like the fit of items you purchase at outlet stores. Sometimes items end up at outlet stores because there was a manufacturing mistake, such as a misplaced button or pocket. And many retailers have lower-quality items manufactured specifically for their outlet divisions, so some materials may be thinner or a jacket may not have a full lining. Trying on the items in the store can make any small issues or defects obvious, so you can decide whether the purchase still makes sense.

Think beyond clothing

While many people associate outlet shopping with clothing, outlet malls often have other types of stores offering discounts on various types of products. In particular, look for deals on items like luggage, cookware and home decor.

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Shop online

While outlet shoppers have historically had to visit stores in person to get deals, a growing number of outlet stores — including J. Crew Factory, Gap Factory and Saks Off 5th are making their goods available for online purchases as well. Even Amazon offers “overstock deals” on its Amazon Outlet page, featuring discounted prices on everything from apparel to gardening supplies.

That said, Woroch says she still prefers to do outlet shopping at brick-and-mortar stores because such stores typically offer even greater discounts than you’d find on their items for sale online.

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