By LAURA T. COFFEY
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001
Shop at outlet malls without running out of cash
There are more than 300 outlet malls nationwide, and Americans love them. Most outlet malls offer exceptional deals, but shoppers need to keep their wits about them as they dodge crowds and hunt for bargains. Consider these tips.
1. Be prepared. Understand the range of goods sold at outlet malls. You'll encounter clothing and shoes that were big hits a few seasons ago, factory overruns, closeouts, slightly damaged merchandise and some merchandise produced solely for outlet stores. Be aware that some outlet malls are home to outlet stores and full-price stores.
2. Make smart comparisons. Brace yourself to see some prices that are higher than you might anticipate. When examining price tags, recognize that those "compare at" prices are full retail prices, not what most people pay. That means the "discounted" outlet price may be the same amount you would pay in a full-price store.
3. Know the tricks. Some items made only for outlet stores can be of inferior quality. To find the real deal, seek out items with sewn-in labels that have been cut or written on with a marker. You also can find good deals by looking for out-of-season goods, which often are in the back of the store.
4. Be inquisitive. Many salespeople at outlet malls are quite knowledgeable and honest about the history and quality of the goods being sold.
5. Regularity isn't everything. Look for irregular clothing and other items, which often have defects that are barely noticeable. Irregulars usually are among the most discounted items in the store.
6. Go for the gold. For real savings, become a member of frequent-shopper programs and put your name on store mailing lists so you can be among the first to know about sales. Check into stores' privacy policies regarding your personal information before you give it out.
7. It can't hurt to ask. Before you head out to the mall, call the store's management office and inquire about any sales or other promotions that aren't being advertised. Also, swing by the management office in person to request a coupon book.
8. Clarify the return policy. Ask the outlet salesperson if you can return your purchases at the store's full-price branches. Such a policy could save you time if you have to return something.
9. Maintain good records. Most outlet stores are good about allowing you to return items, but you should still hang on to your receipts. Otherwise, you may get the lowest price the merchandise was offered for, which could be significantly less than what you paid for it.
10. Show discipline. Go into the mall knowing what you want, and stick to that plan. By giving into impulse buying, you might purchase more than you need and find yourself wallowing in credit card debt and clutter around your home. -- Compiled by Laura T. Coffey.
Sources: Consumer Reports (http://www.consumerreports.org); Prime Retail (http://www.primeoutlets.com); and Chelsea Property Group (http://www.chelseagca.com).