It depends on what you’re looking for. At both types of shops, you can get significant discounts on clothing and accessories—anywhere from 10 to 80 percent off retail prices. However, the quality and the selection of the merchandise differ greatly.
When you make a trip to the outlets, you’ll find your favorite brands in a wide array of styles, colors, and sizes. But there’s a catch: “In their factory stores, some companies focus on selling cost-effective versions of what is sold at the full-priced retailers, not on leftover inventory,” says Linda Humphers, the editor in chief of Value Retail News, a trade publication. That means you might see an embellished top using fewer sequins than the original or a jacket made out of cheaper fabric.
To determine whether an item was made exclusively for the factory store, examine its price tag. Outlet exclusives will read, “Compare at.” Also be wary as you shop. If something doesn’t seem like a bargain, it probably isn’t. “Not every item is marked down,” says Marshal Cohen, the chief industry analyst for NPD, a market research firm. Some outlets mix in regular store inventory at the regular retail prices. If there isn’t a tag or a sign indicating there’s a price reduction, chances are those items are not discounted in any way.
In contrast, off-price merchants such as Ross and Loehmann’s sell inventory that is identical to what you would find in department stores. According to Laura McDowell, a spokesperson for T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, more than 85 percent of T.J. Maxx and Marshalls stock is current-season merchandise, not last year’s cast-offs. That said, “shopping these retailers is a crapshoot,” says Cohen. “You don’t know what designers they’ll carry, and you won’t always find your size or preferred color.” But for some, the thrill of the hunt is part of the fun.