Scouting the Outlets

Discount centers offer more than just bargains these days

November 23, 2003|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

You've started early this year looking for holiday gifts. And quicker than you can say "bah, humbug," you realize your shopping list isn't getting any shorter.

May we suggest an alternative to traditional malls and stores?

Outlet centers are worth the usually lengthy drive for time-pressed holiday shoppers for several reasons. The large ones can be one-stop shopping for all your gifts. Outlet chains have also started offering gift boxes and will do exchanges, which used not to be true. And the Scrooge in you will agree that it might be worth shopping them to find great deals.

Of course, penny-pinching consumers no longer have to travel to outlet centers in remote locations for bargains: They can be had at off-price stores and department store sales.

That's bad news for the outlets but good news for you, the holiday shopper, because outlet centers are reinventing themselves to keep up with the times. Outlets used to rely on their locations near vacation destinations to lure customers; now developers are placing them closer to where the buyers are -- often right off major highways or nearer cities. They're offering services such as food courts and shopper-discount cards and unexpected tenants like banks, hair salons and movies to compete with traditional malls. (Arundel Mills and Potomac Mills are examples of this kind of hybrid mall.) And price slashing is no longer the only hook.

"It's a lot about brand loyalty and selection today," says Randy Marks, publisher of Outletbound: Guide to the Nation's Best Outlets ($12.95).

More and more upscale names like Kenneth Cole and Saks are getting in on the act, to the delight of brand-savvy consumers. At the same time, some department stores are filling their racks with private-label merchandise, so their selection of brand-name designs may be smaller. A shop devoted to Jones New York or Nike can be what lures shoppers to a discount center these days, over and above the possibility of savings.

Today's outlet centers usually have an attractive balance of moderate and high-end stores. Unfortunately, you can't count on automatic bargains, the way you could 20 years ago in the days of factory outlets with bins of irregulars. No one is saying exactly how much you're going to save if you shop at a discount center, but estimates range from nothing on some items to 25 to 75 percent off retail.

"The biggest mistake a consumer can make is to visit one or two outlet shops and decide [outlet shopping] is not for them," says Karin Nemetz, executive director of the Outlet Retail Merchants Association, a Florida-based trade organization. "Each shop has its own stocking and price policy. The deals are there if you're willing to look for them."

The merchandise you'll find depends on the particular outlet chain. It's typically a mix of current season designs, "outlet exclusive" items, last season's products and discontinued merchandise.

This season's designs are usually available six to eight weeks after they arrive in department stores and specialty shops, still in plenty of time to be considered current. The great majority of what you'll find in the centers is what the industry calls "intentional excess," made for the outlets but not -- oh, dreaded words -- outlet exclusive.

"It's a misconception that these [latter] goods are substandard," insists Nemetz, although some shoppers would disagree. Outlet exclusive merchandise might, for instance, be this year's designs made with last year's fabrics.

Prior season and discontinued products typically make up about 15 percent of stock. (Again, it varies from store to store.) These are the items that carry particularly deep discounts. Damaged goods or seconds, the mainstay of early outlet shopping, are almost nonexistent these days.

"If you're looking for bargains, do your homework first," warns retail trend analyst Dave Sutton, chief executive officer of the Atlanta-based Marketing Scientists, LLC. "If you're someone who just enjoys shopping, [outlet centers] offer a wonderful shopping experience."

Nemetz suggests planning your trip by going to www.outletbound.com, a Web site that will give you all the information you'll need on the center you're heading for: what the shops are, hours, directions. You can even search by your favorite brand or distance from your home. Mid-week is the best time to go, and the stores will be least crowded early or late in the day. You can also call the outlet chains in advance to see when new merchandise will be arriving.

Once you arrive at the outlet center, stop by the management office to get coupon books for greater discounts. (You may have to show your AAA card.) And you may want to sign up at each store you visit to get mailings and e-mails with coupons and information on sales. These shops don't advertise in traditional ways.

"Outlets used to be a place to go for factory seconds," says Sutton. "Now they have items you can buy nowhere else. They're positioning themselves as a shopping destination."

A GRAB BAG OF OUTLETS

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