Outlet Vs. Retail - Summer Shopping Comparison

By Gina Briles, Cheapism.com

Outlet malls attract bargain-hunters in droves and claim to offer significant savings over retail, but have you ever wondered what you're really getting for your money? Is it worth making a special trip to the factory outlets for summer gear, or will you do better shopping the sales at your retail mall?

Cheapism enlisted a secret shopper to find answers to these questions. Our researcher compared summertime staples in the areas of quality, selection, and price in order to separate good deals from clever marketing. We conducted a similar exercise prior to the holiday shopping season.

Jewelry was 40% off at the Banana Republic outlet.Jewelry was 40% off at the Banana Republic outlet.

Here's what we found: Outlet shopping can yield good deals if you know what to look for and forswear illusions about what you're buying. For the best selection of sizes, colors and styles, and often for the most convenient locations, retail malls are destination of choice. Moreover, product quality and customer experience are generally on a higher level. But if you're hunting for inexpensive basics or trendy items to be used for a limited period, or if you're willing to settle for slightly lower-quality construction, outlets are the place to go. Outlets can also be a good source for last-season's treasures, like that high-end purse marked down 60 percent. Just remember to account for gas and mileage when planning your outlet excursions; these locations are far fewer than retail malls and any savings might be offset by the cost of gas, wear and tear on your car, and your own time.

Related: Outlet Shopping vs. Retail

The bottom line for our summer shopping expedition follows. The savings noted reflect all discounts on both outlet and retail items in our respective shopping carts; more detail appears in the accompanying chart.

Tommy Bahama. The Tommy Bahama brand is one of the priciest we checked out but the outlet offered total savings of more than 33 percent compared to items sold at retail. Outlet quality was high; merchandise consisted of retail goods from previous seasons rather than made-for-outlet pieces.
Winner: Outlet

Nine West. Nine West shoes may not be worth the trip to the outlet mall.Nine West shoes may not be worth the trip to the outlet mall.Footwear at the Nine West outlet was of an obviously different caliber than that sold at the local mall. Made-for-outlet shoes flaunted fewer details, like fabric-covered buckles, used cheaper-looking synthetic leathers, and cost us about 22 percent less than retail. Nine West's outlet offerings seemed expensive for what they were.
Winner: Retail

Quicksilver. The Quiksilver outlet's surfer-chic swim and board-wear was a mix of off-season retail and made-for-outlet styles. There was no noticeable difference in quality between the two types of merchandise, but prices at the outlet were often, though not always, cheaper. Our total savings here amounted to nearly 29 percent.
Winner: Outlet

Columbia. At the Columbia factory outlet, hiking shirts, convertible pants, backpacks, and water-proof shells sold at prices cheaper than at retail. Items were identical, or nearly so, to those at the full-price store. Retail stores held a slight edge in product selection, but not enough to make up for the steep price discounts at the outlet, which totaled at just over 37 percent.
Winner: Outlet

Related: Summer Outlet Prices

BRAND OUTLET (Before Discounts) RETAIL (Before Discounts) OUTLET (After Discounts) RETAIL (After Discounts) OUTLET SAVINGS (After Discounts) OUTLET VS. RETAIL % SAVINGS (After Discounts)
GAP $557.25 $633.95 $364.50 $525.82 $161.32 30.68%
BANANA REPUBLIC $518.88 $720.48 $282.62 $705.97 $423.35 59.97%
TOMMY BAHAMA $867.00 $860.00 $575.70 $860.00 $284.30 33.06%
QUIKSILVER $109.95 $154.50 $99.97 $139.75 $39.78 28.47%
NINE WEST $219.96 $326.99 $199.96 $256.00 $56.04 21.89%
RESTORATION HARDWARE $99.98 $136.00 $76.38 $114.00 $37.62 33.00%
COLUMBIA $549.65 $714.00 $449.65 $714.00 $264.35 37.02%
NIKE $522.91 $710.00 $522.91 $674.97 $152.06 22.53%
SUNGLASS HUT $457.70 $462.90 $334.74 $462.90 $128.16 27.69%

Restoration Hardware. Proceed with caution at the Restoration Hardware outlet. All products are final-sale only, and furniture is often dinged and dented. That said, there were some good buys and we saved 33 percent compared to retail. Although certain outlet items offer decent value, retail is generally the safer bet with this brand.
Winner: Retail

We preferred Sunglass Hut's retail store over the outlet.We preferred Sunglass Hut's retail store over the outlet.The Sunglass Hut. The Sunglass Hut is often the first stop for protective eyewear. If you're looking to save a buck, however, the Sunglass Hut outlet may disappoint. There are some designer clearance buys, but the styles are unexciting and many are downright unflattering. Aside from the discount deals that cut our cost by about 28 percent, the outlet sells mainly full-price retail sunglasses. We found the experience and the selection vastly superior at retail, and prices were pretty much the same.
Winner: Retail

Related: Kids Clothes Shopping

Gap. Clothing and swimwear sold at the Gap outlet is made specifically for the outlet stores, and the overall quality reflects the cheaper prices, which came to just over 30 percent less than our retail basket of goods. Compared with Gap's retail offerings, outlet clothing often skips that extra row of reinforced stitching, uses a lesser grade of fabric, or eliminates the embellishments. Because the retail Gap runs frequent sales that level the playing field when it comes to cost, we give retail the win with the caveat that the outlet is a good place to stock up on basics or short-lived trends.
Winner: Retail

Related: Outlet vs. Retail Prices

Banana Republic. Banana Republic features outlet goods that are only sold at factory stores. These products are fabricated using less detailing and cheaper materials and don't seem to wear as well as those purchased at retail. But, they cost far less - nearly 60 percent less for our basket. As with its sister brand Gap, however, retail sales can save you a fair amount of money and buy you a better-quality product.
Winner: Retail

Nike. The choice between the Nike outlet and the Nike retail store isn't always clear cut. Prices on men's and women's running gear and workout wear were sometimes cheaper at the outlet and other times at retail. The Nike factory stores, however, stock made-for-outlet apparel, which typically translates to lesser quality and lagging style. But the outlets also sell previous season athletic shoes for men, women, and children at significantly discounted prices. These formerly-retail shoes present the best bargains to be had at the Nike outlet, which is enough to secure the outlet a win over retail. Overall savings at the outlet amounted to just over 22 percent.
Winner: Outlet


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