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We are not saying that outlets are evil, or that you should necessarily stop frequenting them. Outdoor outlets can be a fun way to pass a sunny day. We are just arming you with the knowledge that outlets have become a $17 billion dollar industry that takes advantage of the fact that outlet shoppers want a bargain—so they will do anything to make money off your feeling that you are getting one.

Head to the outlets (if you must) armed with these tips:

  • Know the value of a sunk cost. Even if you’ve driven for 45 minutes or more, if you don’t see anything you like, just walk away. Now that you understand the geographic strategy, don’t throw good money after bad to justify the road trip.
  • Ignore the “full price.” It’s probably fake, and the only thing that’s relevant is whether the item is worth the selling price.
  • Carefully check quality. Have a hawk-eye look at construction, stitching, potential damage. Check tags for fabric content and the country of manufacture. A Consumer Reports study said that 77 percent of people can’t tell the difference between outlet and regular merchandise. Don’t let that be you—if you favor a designer, regularly check their full-price merchandise at the store so you are familiar with its quality and will be able to tell the difference.
  • Research ahead of time. If you know you want a pair of Nike shorts, for example, check out the price online or at your local store, so you know how the outlet price compares. The savings may not be as great as you think, especially after you account for lower quality.
  • Check out Consumer Reports’ rankings. Top-rated stores include Mikasa, Lenox, and L.L. Bean. (A copy is here, and Consumer Reports subscribers can access the full article at their website.)
  • Beware regular retail stores. There’s no legal definition of an “outlet” in the US, so sometimes regular retail stores sneak themselves into an outlet.