Q And Answer: Outlet Malls

April 8, 2010

Q and Answer: Outlet Malls

Michael writes:  I was wondering if you could post some tips on outlet shopping. Do you think they are worth shopping at? I know that a lot of companies that have outlet stores have specific lines, that they only sell at their outlets, of lower end merchandise that they can sell for less. Any tips for what to avoid or what is worth looking at? Or should they just be avoided all together? Thanks!

Sounds like you’re on the right track, Michael.

Most factory outlets aren’t really factory outlets anymore.  Most sell at least some merchandise that was never in a traditional retail store (and was never intended for one).  Some don’t sell any “real” merchandise at all.

Here’s what I’ve got experience with (and do email if you have inside info on stuff we don’t have out here in Southern California):

  • Ralph Lauren has both “Polo” and “Ralph Lauren” outlets.  The Ralph Lauren outlets are pricier, but carry only actual Polo overstocks and Purple Label stuff.  Some, we’ve heard, have recently switched to women’s wear only.  Discounts at these outlets are good but not great.  The Polo outlets are primarily “planned overstock” made for the outlet stores.  The quality is not amazing, though probably not much worse than other Polo items in their categories.  The tailored clothes are mostly Lauren, which is a low-quality line.  There are usually one to three racks, however, which have Polo, RRL and even Purple Label.  Learn to spot these racks, and you can do very, very well.  (Mike notes that the Polo outlets are a great source of cheap bedding.)
  • Brooks Brothers outlets are similar.  Three quarters or more of their stock is from the “346” line, which is made specifically for the outlets.  There are often bargains hidden amongst the 346, however.  Some stores have shoes, including the high-end Peal & Co. line.  Some have Black Fleece, the fashion-forward line designed by Thom Browne, and some have Golden Fleece, the fuddy-duddy but very high quality line.  Check the labels.
  • Allen Edmonds outlets mostly have discontinued shoes and seconds.  The prices aren’t a huge reduction from retail, with the exception of seconds.
  • Gap, Banana Republic and J. Crew sell exclusively clothes made for the outlets.  Not even worth a visit.
  • Department store outlets are typically a mix.  Neiman Marcus Last Call has the most very-high-end merchandise, and sometimes it can come at a very deep discount.  Their normal prices, though, are reduced but not a crazy bargain.  Saks Off 5th has a lot more baloney (read: tattoo t-shirts) to sift through, but again, there can sometimes be wheat amongst the chaff.  They run frequent specials and sales, and sometimes you can score.  The Barney’s Outlets have a lot of store-brand stuff, but sometimes there is something great amongst the sportswear.
  • Ferragamo outlets sometimes have decent selection, but markdowns aren’t huge.
  • Levi’s outlets infrequently stock LVC (Levi’s Vintage Clothing) and other higher-end merchandise.
  • Sean tells us that Johnston & Murphy outlets have almost all genuine overstocks in their “clearance” section.  He even says he found a decent salesmen who helped him navigate the grades of J&M, which range from decent to lousy.
  • Harry & David’s outlets have Boylan Root Beer, which has a nice, slightly fruity flavor, and is one of my favorite soft drinks.  Not really clothes related, but you get thirsty.