Ahh, the simple pleasures of summer: ice cream, sand between your toes - and hitting the outlet mall while you're on vacation. Try these smart but simple strategies for getting the very best deals; they'll have you snagging unbelievable bargains - up to 90 percent off. (Bonus: They work year-round, so tuck them away for holiday shopping.)
1. Cash in on Coupons
Who knew? Most outlets trim at least 25 to 65 percent off retail, but you can also score coupons on top of that - ka-ching! Visit the outlet center's website (two websites that serve multiple outlets are tangeroutlet.com and premiumoutlets.com) to print out savings offers for favorite stores. For instance, I printed a 15-percent-off Kate Spade coupon for both sale and full-price merchandise before I left for a mega-outlet mall. When I got there, I saw the beautiful sparkle tights I had seen on katespade.com a couple of months before but resisted buying because they were $32 a pair. The outlet store was having an additional-40-percent-off sale; the $32 tights were marked down to a $19.99 outlet price, and the additional 40 percent off brought them to $11.99. By deploying the additional 15 percent off from my coupon, I was able to lower their price to $10.19 - so I saved at least two-thirds on the original katespade.com price. And since I signed up on the outlet store's e-mail list, I've gotten more great offers to lure me back - like 25 percent off my entire purchase, plus an extra 10 percent if I bring the printed e-mail along with me.
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2. Phone it In
Sometimes you can nab great outlet deals without even leaving home. I learned this the hard way, after paying about $3 in tolls plus the cost of gas to get to the Woodbury Common Premium Outlets in upstate New York and spending 51 minutes' driving time each way. Once there, I learned that for some stores, if you know an item's style name or number, you can call the shop and order by credit card, and they'll ship it to you for a minimal fee. For instance, having worn and loved the Kate Spade sparkle tights, I called back to see if they could send me a couple of pairs more. Yes, they could - and still at a 40 percent discount, with a flat ground shipping fee of $5 - not bad!
3. Do Damage Control
Ask if there's a "damaged" or "irregulars" rack. Trust me, the stuff usually doesn't look ruined or odd at all. An item there might just be a return from an Internet order, or have dirt on it that will come right off in the wash. It might have gotten crumpled in transit, or have been returned too late to be resold at regular price. At the preppy Vineyard Vines outlet store, I saw a really pretty melon-colored "Gale Coat" with a $225 price tag selling for $29.99, and I inspected it carefully and could find nothing wrong with it other than that it needed some serious pressing. The "damaged" rack also had a men's lined wool navy blazer for $99, down from $395 - again, it was wrinkled but otherwise quite wearable. Note, though, that you can pretty much count on "damaged" merch being a final sale, so don't pounce unless you're sure.
4. Navigate "New Arrivals"
Beware - just because you're in an outlet store doesn't mean you will get a steal. At an Ugg Australia outlet, kids' sheepskin classic short boots in Soft Gold (which my daughter would just love) were "new arrivals," and the retail price was $120. The outlet price? $119.99. Yes, that's right - one penny lower than the original sticker price. My heart raced when I first saw the boots, but no thanks! It's not uncommon for outlet stores to sell "new arrival" merchandise at full or close to full price.
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5. Pack a Snack
While the bargains to be found can be exhilarating, trudging through a mega-outlet mall can leave you parched and hungry. Don't get ripped off at the vending machines. If you save $15 on a shirt, you don't want to waste almost $10 on snacks, as I did ($3 for a bottle of Vitaminwater, $1.50 for a little pack of Chuckles, $2 for a Diet Coke, and $2.09 for a very ordinary small cup of coffee at the hot dog stand). Tote along your own fare so you won't squander your savings. Whatever you bring will probably taste better, too.
6. Work Your AAA Membership
Check out the discounts your card can drive for you: I've been e-mailed offers for 20 percent off at Reebok Outlet Stores, 10 percent off at Gap Outlets, 10 percent off at Banana Republic Factory Stores, and more. And at the 57 Premium Outlet Centers in the U.S., when you flash your AAA card at the Information Center, you get the VIP Coupon Book free; the same is true at Tanger's 34 locations, which will also give you a $5 gift card from Shopper Services that you can use when you visit a different Tanger center. Jersey Shore Premium Outlets even had AAA Member Appreciation Day, with gift bags for the first 50 members and extra savings for all members. Your AARP card or military ID may also reduce your costs; check the outlet center's website before leaving home to find out what kind of extra savings you may be eligible for.
Related: 125 Ways to Save Money
7. Follow Stores on Twitter and Facebook
What's more social than shopping? And it just so happens that social media can ramp up your savings next time you engage in some retail therapy. Outlet stores are tweeting away about late-breaking sales, and you can friend some on Facebook and get a heads-up on new price reductions. Passionate deal-hunter that I am, last spring I went to tangeroutlet.com, clicked on the Twitter icon at the top, and found a sweet tweet: "RT@IZODOutlet: What Color Is Your Polo? Pick Your FREE POLO when you buy two." I promise you, my whole family was thrilled with that one.
-By Alice Hurley
-Photo by: Martin Barraud/Getty Images
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