You might want to put those weekend shopping plans on hold.

By Kristine Gill
Updated February 19, 2019
Credit: tepic/Getty Images

If popular opinion has any bearing on the question, outlet malls certainly offer the best value to savvy shoppers—sales at outlet malls continue to grow, at least, even with online shopping being as widespread as it is. But what about the time it takes to drive to an outlet? And was it really so great a deal if your new skirt fell apart in the wash? We turned to the pros to figure out, for once and for all, if that outlet mall is really as good a deal as you want it to be.

Credit: tepic/Getty Images

Lisa Wagner works for The Outlet Resource Group, consulting with new and existing outlet centers. She says most outlet malls offer average discounts of 30 to 40 percent on items across the board. Others offer additional discounts for an overall savings of 70 to 80 percent off of flagship store items.

How can an outlet do that and still make money? Wagner points out that the overhead for a brick-and-mortar shop within an outlet is a lot less than for a stand-alone store or one in a traditional mall setting. Plus, these retailers are producing items for their outlets at prices per product that drop significantly when made in bulk.

Wagner says to imagine running a factory. You can make 100 blue shirts at one price per item, but you might learn that the price drops if you make more shirts, say 500. You can sell some of those shirts in the flagship store and some at steep discounts within the outlet—but you’ll still make more money overall if they were cheaper to produce in the first place.

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The deals might sound great at an outlet, but why not just shop online for sales at the main store?

Wagner says you might be getting a good deal, but you likely aren’t getting the best deal, because you’re searching through the bottom of the barrel rather than shopping at an outlet where clothing of all sizes has been specifically produced for that store. Plus, when you shop online, you lose the experience of a brick-and-mortar store.

“You can’t try it on, you can’t touch it, you can’t feel it,” Wagner says. And it ruins the adventure shoppers feel when they go out with friends and family, looking for bargains. “People aren’t going to gather together around the computer to go shopping,” Wagner says.

Not all discounts are created equal. Sometimes, deals are advertised that sound better than they might actually be. Think about the BOGO deals, which encourage you to spend a little more for multiples of an item.

Blogger Stacey Garska Rodriguez of The Soccer Mom Blog says to pay attention to the details. “Read tags and signs carefully,” she says. “Always look for the price per item.”

When it comes to the BOGO offers, or even three-for-one deals, Garska Rodriguez likes to stock up on basics such as T-shirts or undershirts.

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Some shoppers realize that when it comes to outlet malls, you get what you pay for.

Blogger Elif Mamakli of The Box Queen says some brands are known for producing outlet clothing at a lower quality. Luckily, it’s easy to check by reading the tag. A quick Google search for your favorite brand will tell you what to look for on the tag—sometimes it’s a series of dots or a letter in the product number—that tell you the product was produced differently. You can avoid those pieces if you don’t want to worry about them falling part.

Garska Rodriguez says if you’re unsure of quality but love an item, you should still buy it—spending less on a trendy item that will go out of style next year is often still a great deal.

Wagner says that, contrary to popular belief, not all items in outlet malls are hand-me-downs from the main store. In fact, some retailers such as Nike have been known to pilot new product lines in the outlet setting before bringing them into the main store, Wagner says.

In addition, retailers might manufacture a line of polka-dotted blouses and striped pants for their main store, then use the same fabrics for different pieces in the outlet, meaning you can only grab the striped blouse if you hit the outlet as well.

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It used to be that outlet malls were located outside of major metropolitan areas, in the suburbs or in major tourist destinations. And usually that meant you had to plan a trip and be prepared to spend some time driving. By the time you take gas prices into consideration, you could have gotten the same shirt for the same price at the nearby mall. Nowadays they’re getting closer, Wagner says.

“They’re on public transport lines, near entertaining and dining. They’re not the remote outlet center they’ve been in the past,” she says. “Those will also be around but there will also be more accessible ones.”

Sales at outlet malls continue to increase year after year, and they’re keeping pace with e-commerce sites when it comes to apparel, accessories and footwear, Wagner says. Part of that is because shoppers love the sense of the treasure hunt they get when shopping. “It’s the only form of shopping that consumers still report as being fun,” Wagner says.

Decades ago, Wagner says the primary shopper demographic at outlets was the adult female head of household. These days, the most frequent shoppers are Millennials.

“The theory is that Millennials grew up shopping at outlets with their mothers,” Wagner says. So now, the habit is engrained and it’s a bonding experience.

But it’s not just daughters. Young men are also hitting up outlets in groups a couple times a year as a way to hang out and get the best price on things like tennis shoes or basketball shorts.

“I had a 23-year-old Uber driver tell me he and his guy friends go spend the day and buy work clothes,” Wagner says. “And I thought, there it is.”

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To sum it all up, you can find good deals at outlet malls—though it depends on what you’re looking for. For the most part, though, your local outlet mall still offers the deals, sales, and more that you know and love, so keep those weekend shopping plans right as they are.