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Product Reviews

Do outlet stores deliver?

Most products stand up to tests on comparison, quality, and price

Laurie Swope /File 2003

A full parking lot illustrates the popularity of outlet shopping.

With the promise of big savings on quality name brands, outlet stores are booming. But are they delivering on that promise? To find out, Consumer Reports surveyed 17,753 readers who made nearly 39,000 outlet store visits.

The results reveal winners and losers among the 58 major outlet brands included in the survey, which considered value, quality, selection, and service. Consumer Reports also interviewed experts and sent a reporter to buy $2,000 worth of shirts, slacks, socks, sweats, and other items to examine in CR’s textile labs.

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Overall, 60 percent of outlet shoppers said they were completely or very satisfied with their experience. Respondents gave high marks to a range of stores. Among the top choices: Jockey and Carter’s (clothes, underwear), Harry & David (food), Corningware (kitchenware), Izod and Van Heusen (clothes), and Coach (leather goods and other accessories).

Almost three-quarters of shoppers described the merchandise quality as excellent or very good. About the same percentage rated outlet merchandise equal in quality to the same brands sold at regular stores. Eleven percent judged outlet goods slightly poorer, but said the differences were so insignificant that they were barely noticeable.

Two percent thought outlet lines were “substantially poorer’’ than goods sold elsewhere. Specifically, Banana Republic, Brooks Brothers, Gap, J.Crew, and Pottery Barn were cited more than other stores for selling goods inferior to those in regular stores.

Putting the merchandise to the test

Outlet store goods are designed to sell for less, so shoppers can’t assume they’re exact copies of products sold in regular stores. Consumer Reports’ textile expert, for example, confirmed that outlet versions were often tweaked. The regular retail items were usually a trifle better because of construction details or better materials. But in most cases, the outlet versions were fine, and on several occasions, superior.

For example, Consumer Reports purchased a ladies Polo Ralph Lauren classic Oxford shirt at a retail store for $76.50 and at an outlet for $40. The savings were roughly 48 percent. Both shirts were made in China and had similar fabric and construction. The quality was similar. The only notable difference was a yellow fabric backing on the outlet shirt’s collar. “It’s a higher-end finish that added a nice touch,’’ CR’s expert said.

The price is right. Sometimes.

Sixty percent of the shoppers surveyed said that outlets offered exceptional value, and 30 percent said that prices were much lower than sale prices at regular stores, especially at Coach, Haggar, Izod, Van Heusen, and VF Outlets (the parent company of dozens of apparel brands).

The top complaint was higher-than-expected prices, cited in one in five visits. Stores more likely to be called out for high prices: Bose, Calvin Klein, Casual Male XL, Gymboree, J.Crew, Levi’s, Nike, Polo Ralph Lauren, Pottery Barn, Samsonite, and Sunglass Hut.

Outlet shopping tips

For bargain hunters looking to improve their outlet experience and save even more, Consumer Reports offers the following tips:

Go to the outlet’s management office or call to find out about unadvertised sales.

Shop early in the day, when crowds are smaller and merchandise hasn’t been picked over.

Think twice about shopping during the holidays. Crowds are intense.

Join shopper programs like Premium Outlets’ VIP Shopper Club (free) or Tanger Club ($10) for exclusive promotions and coupons. Sign up for e-mail alerts and get bonus savings by becoming a fan on sites like Facebook.

Seek other discounts. Some centers offer deals for seniors and the military. Go to the outlet’s website for specifics.

Consumer Reports writes columns, reviews, and ratings on cars, appliances, electronics, and other consumer goods. Previous stories can be found at consumerreports.org.
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