We're spending more than ever at outlet malls. Sales are expected to top $42 billion this year, according to the trade publication Value Retail News. Consumer Reports has rated 53 of the biggest outlet stores for value and quality, based on a survey of almost 16, 000 subscribers, and can help you bag the best bargains.
Most shoppers that Consumer Reports surveyed are happy with the outlet deals. Sixty-four percent say outlets offer great value. Those surveyed found superior value at Bon Worth, Haggar, OshKosh B'gosh, Izod, and L.L.Bean. But the ratings from subscribers were not as good for some other stores, including American Eagle Outfitters, Old Navy, Gap, Nike, and Levi's.
These days most merchandise is made especially for the outlets. But is it the same quality? For example, two Coach bags: One from the Coach store for $378 and the other from the outlet for $150. The retail version is made of a nice, heavy, embossed leather. It has a rounded top, so it sits nicely, and a rounded handle, which is more comfortable. The outlet version is a fine bag, but it has a few less fine details and a flat handle.
There's a big price difference between J.Crew's outlet ballet flats ($42) and those from its retail store ($150). The shoes are very similar. But the retail version is made of leather in Italy, and the outlet version is made in China of polyurethane. And the retail version also has a heel, which will provide much better support.
Also be aware that not everything is cheaper at the outlets. Although a Corelle dinnerware set is identical to the one at the retail store, it actually costs more: $80 instead of $75. Same with a Revere Ware pot and pan set. It's $70 at the retail store and $68 at the outlet.
Bottom line: Some outlets definitely offer bargains, but you have to shop carefully. Consumer Reports has more tips for outlet shoppers. Head to the back of the store first. You'll find the biggest markdowns there. And if an item is damaged, always ask for an additional discount. Consumer Reports shoppers got at least 10 percent off, every time.