Thursday, October 13, 2011

Out-ing the Outlets


What inveterate shopper doesn't thrill at the sight of an outlet center looming ahead off the freeway? Chances are you're on your way somewhere, with family, maybe the dog too, and they are not about to stop. So you drive on, looking backward with longing as you pass the Big Brand Names (hopefully you are not actually doing the driving). Better yet is the outlet center that comes to town (or a town near you). You may need to use half a tank of gas to get there and back, but you still never know what bargains may be in store. You should know because— guess what— there aren't any.

Outlet centers are Big Business. They act as tourist attractions and actual destinations. One of the most lavish is Woodbury Common north of New York City and fortunately (for me) about 45 minutes from where we used to live. Buses would pull up regularly full of tourists who must have run out of shops in Manhattan. It's common knowledge by now that outlet centers are just another form of commerce and not meccas of production over-runs and teeny-tiny defects hardly worth noticing. Nevertheless, we are still enchanted. So if you're going to turn into an outlet center drive anyways, be prepped.

There are three kinds of outlets:
> On-site factory stores are the ones that started it all. The Vanity Fair company in Reading, PA takes credit for being first in the '70s. The factory lured shoppers to make a day trip from Philadelphia or New York City and take away slightly damaged, slightly soiled, last season's unshipped merchandise at bargain prices. Goods would be heaped in bins or on tables in one room. No fancy merchandising but plenty of underwear, t-shirts, sleepwear. These were goods you needed, but they didn't need to be particularly stylish. The defects (or lack of style) wouldn't show. The VF Factory Outlet still exists in Reading but is now eight buildings big.

> Department store outlets were the next to arrive— Saks Off Fifth, Neiman Marcus Last Call, Nordstrom Rack. Over time the deals have gotten less and less. Today as little as 10% of the merchandise actually saw the inside of the mother store. 20% is manufactured expressly for the store, and the rest can be bought from well-known vendors who are also producing an outlet center version of their better known lines.

> Manufacturer's outlets (Ralph Lauren, Donna Karen, GAP) produce goods for their outlet stores that are never on Main Street using poorer quality fabric, buttons, less stitches-to-the-inch, etc. No one is trying to fool you. The label will indeed say GAP Outlet for instance. But we want to believe what we want to believe.

The truest outlets we have now are the "off-price" stores such as TJ Maxx and Marshall's (owned by the same company), traditionally not found in outlet centers. Years ago a friend who worked for Ralph Lauren told me that's where the real stuff goes— the samples, pieces bought but never delivered, discontinued or past season. The goods are not all gold; TJ Maxx has their own "Willi Smith" line of affordable trendy fashion, but they also have "The Runway" with Dolce & Gabana, Prada and Missoni not for Target.

Outlets count on the fact that you are there to buy something and don't want to leave empty-handed. But be sure you really want/need it as going back to return can be a haul. Check the return policy as well; it may only be for store credit. If you're trying to complete an outfit, bring the item or color swatch with you. Do your homework at Neiman's or Saks (known to me as "museums with price tags") ahead of time so you can spot the trends and perhaps a real deal. A day of outlet shopping is a great girl-friend get together. The car ride gives you plenty of time to catch up. You can indulge in a chocolate coated pretzel if you're really pulling out the stops. Just think of outlets as outings and you won't wake up to a big case of buyer's regret.

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