How to Survive the Outlet Mall

how to survive the outlet mallThis weekend — spurred by the beautiful weather and the fact that I haven’t been shopping for far too long — the hubs and I trekked to Woodbury Commons, a Chelsea Premium outlet mall about 50 miles north of NYC.  The whole trip was doomed — we arrived too late, couldn’t find parking, then separated before realizing both cell phones were dying.  At the end of the day, the hubs had lost his sunglasses — and my only purchase of the day was napkins from Crate & Barrel.  Oh, the humility — it was as if I were an amateur.  Learn from our mistakes…

If you’re planning any big shopping expedition — outlet mall, regular mall the day of big sales — you need a strategy, and a commitment to execute it. Roughly ninety percent of a successful trip is due to a solid plan.

Planning

1.  Be aware of bad timing — If it is one of the first nice weekends of the season (or a big sale), plan for crowds — plan to get there first thing in the morning. (The stores will be neater then anyway, and it will be easier to enjoy the shopping experience.)

2. Go online for deals — almost every outlet mall has a “VIP coupon book” that you can get for free, as well as store-specific coupons.  The only hitch is that you have to go to a specific spot in order to pick up the coupon book.

3.  Print a map of the place if you can. Know where you need to go in order to pick up the coupon book, and try to plan your route — where will you park first?  Which stores are your priority?  Which stores might net a heavy or awkward purchase, requiring a trip to your car?  (Pictured:  map of Woodbury Commons.)

4. Know the difference between a “factory store” and an outlet store — an outlet store has merchandise from previous seasons, at a discounted price.  A “factory store” (sometimes also called a “company store”) may only have merchandise that was created particularly for that store — i.e., stuff that was never sold in the stores.  This can be good, in that the top or dress will be more scarce — but you should keep the difference in mind when you’re assessing each piece, because the quality may be different from what you normally associate with that brand.  Furthermore — it helps to know your brands, and know what a good “sales” price is elsewhere, particularly on the Internet or at a discount store like TJ Maxx or DSW.  This will help you assess whether the price at the outlet mall is a good price, or if you should just use the opportunity to suss out your size.

5.  Assess your gear — particularly your handbag.  Are you wearing one that is comfortable to carry all day, along with any purchases?  Will it still be comfortable to carry if you find a ton of clothes to try on and sling them over your arm?  (For our $.02, we prefer a bag with a shoulder strap for just that reason.)

6.  Charge your cell phones, especially if you are planning the trek with someone else.  It is very likely that you will get separated.

7.  Pack some water, if possible, to keep in your car — if you are particular about food, you may also want to pack a small snack or two.

Once you Arrive

1.  Keep a running total in your head of how much you’ve spent — and stop spending when it gets too high.

2.  Drink water frequently to keep your energy up.

3.  Take notes. If it’s your first time at this mall, try to remember which stores are particularly good, and for what.  Sometimes there are surprises — such as the great lingerie frequently for sale at Off Fifth.

Readers, any other tips for surviving a trip to an outlet mall?  Any victories at the racks that still stand out?

how to survive the outlet mall and get killer deals

 

Comments

  1. legalicious07 :

    I never knew the difference b/t a factory store and an outlet store! Good to know!

    Also, as far as the coupon books, don’t forget that you can sometimes get them for free (instead of the nominal $5 or so) if you are an AARP member, a college student, etc.

    • legalicious07 :

      Oops! I meant to say a AAA member, not AARP. :-b

      • AARP might have coupons too! ;-) (See, now you have a reason to cave into that shopping trip with that aunt/mother-in-law/mother/cousin who wears those horrible embroidered sweaters!)

  2. My local outlet mall has a list of which stores are having sales, so I start planning my trip from that, seeing where I can also add a AAA coupon. If I can’t get two discounts I usually don’t go.

    With regards to outlet vs. factory stores, the big brands (JCrew, Banana, etc) will have different labels for the made-for-the-outlet clothes — usually two dots below the brand name.

    Lines for dressing rooms can be very long, so I wear a dress over a tshirt and leggings so it’s easy to change and if I absolutely *have* to can try something on in the store.

    Bring a real meal, not just a snack — outlet mall food courts are foul!

    • Delta Sierra :

      If you do end up eating in the mall reataurants, try to eat earlier than the crowds, or later, to minimize waiting in line, or for your order.

  3. I look at the list of stores before I go, and pick 4 or 5 that are must-visits, and a handful of others I would like to get to if possible. I strategize parking based on that list. Then, I don’t let myself get distracted by some random store that I see while I’m there. Shopping an outlet mall can be exhausting, so I make sure to hit the most important stores first. That way if I tire out (or get fed up with the crowd) earlier than expected, I won’t be disappointed by having spent the whole time wandering in and out of stores I don’t have any need to visit.

    • Delta Sierra :

      Second this. I hit the stores I know I like first, then, if I have the time/energy, might make another pass through and go into some just-in-case stores. But I end up never buying anything in them – if I thought their stuff was junk in the first place, when I go into them again at a later date, surprise! it’s still junk.

    • Great point! I’m a fan of scoping out the options first… also good to make sure that the store you’re going for is still there

  4. Great tips! Thanks so much Corporette.

  5. I like the Ann Taylor Factory Store for business casual basics – especially trousers, button-down shirts, and sweaters. The quality and price are similar to Ann Taylor Loft, but the styles aren’t nearly as trendy (so, good for my conservative business casual office). They carry suits too, but I’ve never gotten one there.

    • The Ann Taylor Factory store by me sells suiting at a price of 3 pieces for $199 (jacket, skirt, pants) and I like the styles/quality. It never occurred to me that the quality could be lower than the “regular” AT!

      • I got a 3-piece AT Outlet suit-combo as part of my back-to-work after baby shopping spree. I was very happy with the quality, price and styling. My only regret is not getting a couple of sizes in the skirt.

      • They could be the same quality — A lot of factory/outlet stores are mislabeled… or they carry both one-offs and items specially made for them. Some of them have overstock as well… just try EVERYTHING on to make sure you’re happy with the fit/quality/etc.

  6. Just a note: the Brooke Brothers factory store also receives the off-season stuff that the stores can’t sell.

    • Yes for women, not always for men. Can’t speak for all stores, but the men’s one I have been too usually only carries the factory brands, with the exception of pajamas & other very random clearance items.

  7. Great advice – outlet shopping can be daunting if you dont tackle it properly. The best advice is to make sure you’re purchasing something because you love it or need it, not just because it’s designer and on sale.

  8. AccompanyingWife :

    I was at WC this weekend as well!

    I disagree about starting too early in the morning. Everyone does this. One should plan to get to WC around 4pm and stay ’til it closes at 9pm. We do this at least twice a year; it’s much less crazy after 4pm.

    I made a list of things I needed (on Friday, I wrote a note to myself that said: “1 wide brown belt, 1 dresses (silk or cotton, summery), 1 pair of jeans (mid-rise, boot-cut), 1 pair of sneakers (casual)) and made a list of the must-stops.

    I agree that it helps to know your brands and know what a good “sale” price is. We skipped the BR Outlet entirely–the quality is sub-par to the retail shops, imho, and BR on sale (and on clearance) is often the same price as much of the outlet merchendise.

    DH had a better day than I did (Buy One, Get One Free suits of Off Saks! 50% off retail at John Varvatos!) but I found my jeans at Diesel, my kicks at Puma, and a pretty LBD at the Barney’s outlet.

    • Completly agree with you about the timing. Seems most people go early, then try to leave by around dinner time to get home. When I show up in the late afternoon and stay into the evening it isn’t nearly as crowded.

      Since I have to drive about an hour to get to the one nearest me, sometimes it’s best to eat dinner when you first arrive, at a resturaunt, instead of a food court, and then shop.

      Also note that most Outlet malls always have extra sales each weekend, so try not to go on a weekday, even if it is tempting to avoid the crowds.

  9. I live within 20 minutes of an outlet mall, & live in a very small town with very limited options otherwise (think Target & Walmart. period.). So I’ve gotten to know which stores are the best for me. I agree that a list is important, and I’ve also begun price-checking online with other sources before I head out. Using the outlets to verify sizes in a new brand is convenient! Around here, Sundays is the big outlet mall outing day, so I try to go on Saturdays, if not first thing Sunday. Also, if I’m not planning to buy anything big & heavy, I find a central parking spot & wear good walking shoes.

    • And avoid the week before school starts… that’s when everyone is running around trying to get their kids ready, and while they may not be shopping for suits for their kids, its amazing how crowded the Banana Republic or Brooks Brother store gets from families trying to fit it all in.

  10. Pay attention for off-season items. For example, now is a great time to buy boots, winter coats etc. With regard to Brooks Brothers, they have their own discount line – Brooks Brothers 346 I believe.

  11. I also check online for coupons beforehand – doing a Google search of “Ann Taylor coupon” can sometimes save you 10-20%. And I agree on the Banana Republic outlets. I was surprised that the prices weren’t much lower than the retail stores, even though the quality often was lower.
    Wear your “work” underwear so you can check for panty lines, VBS, etc. And I sometimes carry a pair of heels in my bag (or hit the shoe stores first!) so I can figure out right away how much tailoring needs to be done on a pair of pants, and avoid trying on skirts while standing in my socks.
    Also, I have had TERRIBLE luck with hosiery stores at outlets – the nylons are always irregular in some terrible way (twisted, or they all have holes in the same visible place). Any suggestions for avoiding this?

    • I’ve never shopped for hosiery at outlets but I always buy from One Hanes Place and have yet to figure out what makes my hose “slightly irregular”. They fit perfectly, no visible irregularities, and they last just as long as the full-price ones do (which is until my cat manages to snag them!)

    • Good call on the underwear – also make sure you have slip on shoes so you can try on shoes without major issue. Also, go with the most neutral bra you have – its hard to judge whether you like a white blouse when you can’t tear your eyes off of your black bra glaring through it.

    • It’s interesting to hear different people’s experiences with the BR outlet. In my area the outlets are much cheaper than the retail stores. It’s rare I see anything at the traditional stores outside of the holiday season that is anything more than 30% off, while the outlets nearby often have 40-50% the entire store on certain weekends.

      • Chicago K :

        I totally agree, I buy from both the BR Outlet and the regular store, and the merchandise by me is identical. The only thing I notice is, the identical items are usually on sale in the store/online too, so perhaps they wait and ship things that aren’t selling to the outlet? I don’t go often enough to know if the items show up when they first show up in the stores.

        Ann Taylor by me is the opposite; the clothes there are an entirely different line than what would be at a regular Ann Taylor store. It is mainly lots of sweaters and twin sets and suits, all in slightly different styles, but with about 5 colors to choose from for each item. It is very generic, nothing like the regular Ann Taylor or Loft stores. Still good for a few basics, but otherwise I stay away as it isn’t very stylish and sort of boring. Reminds me of LL Bean or Lands End.

        • Agree re/ BR outlet/factory vs regular store, the quality looks comparable to me and the prices are way lower.

      • Part of it may be how many outlet stores a company has – some only have one or two while others may have dozens. If you’re at one of only two outlet stores where they sell overruns and one-offs then you’ve hit the jackpot in terms of stock and sale prices usually.

  12. there’s an outlet mall near new york? I did not know this. Can I get there easily by some form of public transit or do you really need a car?

    • I’ve never done it, but there are buses! Just search for Woodbury Commons and bus, and you’ll find several options.

    • You can also take LIRR to outlets in Long Island. Tanger?
      Not sure how it works but google Tanger, pick a location & see the listed info.

      If you can drive, you can also rent a car for a day. Split with a friend it’s about 35$/2 people (less if you have more friends you’re taking). The whole trip is about 1-1 1/2 hrs. from the city.

  13. I would also add that many outlets (at least in CA) are in a wishbone or semi-circular shape, with most of the parking in the middle, stores surrounding. You can ALWAYS snag a spot if you’re willing to drive “to the back” (ie the loading docks) behind the stores. I swear–it always works, even on crazy weekends like Thanksgiving.

    • Same is true in NJ … let’s face it, we’re a car-based society ;-) But be careful – a great parking space at 4 p.m. behind the stores is just plain scary without any lights at 8:30 p.m. when you go back to the car

  14. For students and others of limited means, I recommend shopping with cash rather than a credit card to keep expenses under control. It’s not a hard and fast rule – I keep a running list of professional items I *need* (currently, a navy suit and a professional, non-briefcase tote) and I will break out the credit card for the items I thought important enough to list. For everything else, I use cash – if I don’t have any, I don’t go to the outlet malls. Or to Nordstrom Rack – their shoe section is too hard to resist.

    • Excellent suggestion – a great way to keep from “accidentally” busting your budget and only buying stuff you absolutely love/need. Will definitely be trying this method next time I go to the local outlet mall (I actually use a similar approach for going out – no risk losing my credit card and keeps my drinking and bar tab in control)!

    • I also like to look for second hand gift cards at a discount on http://www.giftcards.com/merchant_main.html – the downside is that they’re merchant specific, but I’ve gotten $200 Macy’s gift cards for $150… I’m shopping with a $50 discount built in, and then you start adding in the sales/coupons and you can really stretch your money out.

      • Shayna – can you tell me more about your experiences with giftcards.com? Do the cards ship directly from the seller? Is there a guarantee that the card is not expired or otherwise unusable? I have been intrigued by some of the gift cards on there before, but wasn’t sure how it works in practice. Have you always had a good experience with the cards you’ve gotten?

        • No, the cards come from the company — if you have unwanted gift cards you can check the website to see if they want them, and what % of the balance they’ll pay you for, and then you sign up with them and mail it to them. When you buy them, they guarantee the balances. I haven’t had a bad experience — I was skeptical as well, but after watching a friend save nearly $100 at Talbots (before sales/coupons/etc.) I decided to give it a shot.

  15. Love the outlets! The Jackson Outlets are the NJ option – I do great in the Gap outlet (it has both items made for that store and for the regular Gap store, much of which is First Quality – no issues!), and I love the J. Crew outlet as well (same deal). In Lewes, Delaware – right across from Cape May, NJ (there’s a ferry) there are major outlets – three different sections connected by trolley bus! In Flemington, NJ, there’s a Lenox outlet – worth the trip from NYC or Philadelphia if you have a wedding to go to.

    My biggest tip: Try EVERYTHING on — b/c a lot of it is 2nd quality you may find a strange color drip or an extra buttonhole on a pair of pants, etc. Still wearable, but you may not want them flawed.

    In most cases you can’t return these items to the regular store so if you don’t live nearby, make sure you’re not going to want to return whatever it is.

  16. Not sure if this is true at other outlet malls, but Woodbury Commons in particular is a big draw for tourists. If you go, be prepared to deal with large crowds of them. If you are at all impatient or “on a mission,” they can definitely put a cramp in your style. Shopping on off-hours, as others have suggested, may be a way to avoid the tourist busloads. Unfortunately, my trips to WC usually end up like Kat’s – high hopes … and ultimately a let-down.

  17. We shop the outlets in Vegas on our trip there every other year. I don’t go into it with a “plan,” per se – shopping is fun for me, I would hate to make it too much like work. :) Here are my tips:
    – I totally recommend, as others have suggested, searching for coupons and even for the mall’s name on the Internet before you go. You can find out about sidewalk sales, sample sales, and other events that can save you a lot of money. We have rescheduled trips to another weekend if the discounts were going to be good enough – at Off Fifth in particular, when they put things on percent-off-clearance it’s possible to get a $500 item for $75. That’s worth planning a trip around. It’s also a good idea to find out, in advance, if where you want to go and where your spouse/shopping companion wants to go are at completely different ends of the complex, so you can plan out a meeting time and place.
    – We never have as much time at the malls as I’d like, so like others, I make a list – here are the top three stores I want to hit, then these others if I have time.
    – Sometimes even outlet prices are not low enough. I got really excited about visiting a Burberry outlet in Vegas a couple years ago – only to find out when I got there that things were maybe 30 percent off regular retail. In Vegas and California especially, there are a lot of “outlet” stores that get a lot of traffic from tourists from overseas who are usually using stronger currency – so the outlet stores don’t have to discount much to draw their business. Bargain/frugal topic discussion boards are a good place to find out whether an outlet really has outlet prices, or just a modest discount off full retail.
    – We always plan our trips so that we can either leave for lunch and come back, or just finish up and head out before mealtime. Outlet mall food courts are horrible.
    – I am usually a fan of shopping alone, but I prefer to bring a friend along when I outlet shop. A friend can persuade you that those Coach shoes that are 80% off are not a bargain, because they are not your style and don’t fit perfectly. Sometimes it’s hard to keep details in perspective when you’re faced with big discounts – something that you’d reject at full price becomes a must-have when it’s 75% off. Having someone else there to offer perspective can save you a lot of money – especially since returning items can be difficult either because of store policies (I think final clearance items at Off Fifth, for example, can’t be returned), or because traveling back to the outlet would be a pain in the rear.

  18. One good trick for not overspending is to take cash. Once that cash is gone, you’re DONE shopping.

  19. I have a Prime Outlets that I frequent near me, and one thing I have noticed is, not all of the stores in the center are actually outlet/discount stores. They throw in a regular Bath and Body Works, Perfumania and some others that are full price.

    Just something to be aware of, I assumed they were all discount stores before asking at Bath and Body Works why everything seemed to be at full (sale) price. It was then they told me they were a regular store, that just happened to be in the Outlet Mall center.

  20. I’ve been to Woodbury a few times and think it’s a great place to shop for professional attire. My best scores were always in the higher end stores that I’d never dare to shop on a full-retail basis. I once stopped in Carolina Herrera just to admire her line, not expecting to purchase anything. The store was having an additional 50% off promotion on top of the current markdowns. I ended up scoring the most gorgeous pantsuit (classic fit with great craftsmanship) for 85% off retail! I’ve also managed to find some good deals on beautiful work pieces at Elie Tahari, Theory, and Thomas Pink.

  21. Wow, I’m jealous of your Colina Herrera find! I think her clothes are beautiful but so beyond my price range I don’t even look at the tags whenI window shop/drool

  22. Other tri-State area outlets with good stores (relatively new): Lightcap outside Phila and Ocean Co off the NJ Parkway. Both of these have some different stores. There are also some outlets in Atlantic City now as well that include Coach, ATL, etc. I would say check food options nearby, on-line, before you go, because outlet mall food can be really dismal and/or so tough to get because of crowds that you starve. Also, if your husband is not a shopper, either do not require that he go or make sure he brings a book or computer game… otherwise you will be rushing out and will just have to go back later without him. :(

    • So true — If you’re travelling any distance to shop, do not bring along someone who isn’t going to want to go through all the stores you want to go through – although the outlets in Jackson, NJ, have a Bose outlet you can park the male members of your entourage at for a while :-)

  23. Experienced :

    Big scores @Nordstrom Rack–St John Blazer sz 2 $39.00, Donna Karen leather vest, saw in Vogue for $980–this was item I had looked for everywhere–size 2 89$. Only times ever at outlet.

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