10 Tips to Get the Best Deals From Outlet Shopping

Sale sign in the clothing shopI used to think of outlets as a repository of amazing deals on brands I love. But after researching this story and making a trip to an outlet mall, my opinion has changed.

I recently trekked to a Gap outlet store hoping for big savings on their pants. But I was surprised by what I found: jeans that looked noticeably different and of lower quality than the pairs I’d purchased from the mall back home. How could this be?

As it turns out, I wasn’t mistaken. According to Consumer Reports, Gap is one of several retailers that manufacture clothing specifically for their outlets, and these items may be different and of lower quality than what is in regular stores. This isn’t the only trick retailers pull at their outlet stores, either.

Outlets still offer plenty of great deals that can make the trip worthwhile, but some savings aren’t always what they seem.

1. Give outlet goods a closer look. Outlets aren’t just for items that didn’t sell at the retail store. Some offer seconds or B-grade goods, and many stores stock items that are only made for outlets, sometimes with noticeable differences in quality from what you’d find at the mall.

According to The Dallas Morning News, Saks outlets — Saks Off 5th — says only 12 percent of its goods are overstock from Saks Fifth Avenue stores. The rest was made specifically for the outlet location. Gap, Brooks Brothers and Coach admit they manufacture separate lines of goods exclusively for their outlet stores. Only 20 percent of what Nordstrom Rack sells is clearance merchandise from Nordstrom stores and website, according to this report, while the rest is bought expressly for the outlet.

Outlet-only clothing and goods vary in quality, so be sure to take a close look. Does the item feel like it’s lighter? Does it look low quality? Some items might say “outlet” or “factory line” right on the tag. Here’s a tip from Buzzfeed: “J.Crew Factory (the outlet for J.Crew) puts two diamonds under the “r” on its labels, while the Gap Outlet label uses three dots.”

It’s possible the outlet version is cheaply made and won’t last as long as what you’d buy from the regular store, so factor in quality as well as price. On the other hand, some differences might be insignificant, and the savings may outweigh them.

2. Compare prices beforehand. Retailers know you’re looking for savings at outlet stores, and many try to make these discounts seem as deep as possible. You may see signs at the outlet store suggesting prices are 65 percent off, but those only apply to the sorts of things that haven’t sold despite repeated markdowns. Consumer Reports says the average savings are closer to 38 percent. You’ll often see markdowns off the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, but outlet or not, customers rarely pay this suggested price.

If you want to know what you’re really saving, check the retailer’s website and compare prices. You may be surprised to find outlet discounts aren’t as big as they claim.

3. Join online outlet clubs. Premium Outlets and Tanger, two of the largest outlet operators, with 70 and 35 malls respectively, offer exclusive promotions when you become a member of their clubs.

With Premium Outlets’ free VIP Club, you’ll receive online coupons and notifications of special events.

Tanger charges a one-time $10 fee to join TangerClub, but you’ll get a $10 gift card in return along with exclusive member offers and savings.

4. Get the best deals off-season. Shop for your winter clothing in the summer and for summer items in winter to bring outlet prices down even further.

5. Time your shopping trip. Outlets can be very busy, so you’ll do best by avoiding both congestion and picked-over shelves by shopping at off-peak times. Experts suggest stopping in on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and shopping early in the day. If you’re not a morning person, avoid the early afternoon and wait until dinnertime.

6. Check retail stores before outlets. Try shopping the local mall during sales or with coupons, where you might find the prices to be comparable but the quality better. Don’t forget to look at clearance items both in the store and online.

7. Check with outlet centers for coupons and circulars. Coupons and other discounts can make outlet shopping an even better deal. Call or go online to see if any coupons or circulars offer additional savings. Senior and military discounts might also be available.

8. Watch the return policy. Unless you don’t mind driving back to the outlet mall, check the return policy before loading up on discounted goods. Many regular stores don’t take returns from outlet locations.

9. Ask outlet staff. If you have questions about the quality of outlet items, don’t be afraid to ask store staff. Some employees may tell you if it’s made for the outlet or offer other valuable information.

10. Don’t fall into the daytrip trap. Don’t see anything you like? Don’t be afraid to leave empty-handed.

Outlet malls are typically placed in far-away locations. Not only is this real estate cheaper, but shoppers may also look at outlet shopping as investing in a full-day trip. With the expenses of gas, time and energy, shoppers may feel they need to justify the sunk costs and end up spending more than they would otherwise.

Ignore the impulse to spend more just to make the trip feel worthwhile. Shelling out more money for unneeded stuff won’t make you feel better, no matter how much you spend on gas.

Outlet stores are just one way to find bargains, of course. If treasure hunting is your passion, don’t forget to check our tips on shopping at thrift stores, Not Your Grandma’s Goodwill, consider Rebate Sites that Pay You for Shopping Onlineand peruse the 10 Best Buys at Warehouse Clubs.

A Guide to Discounts for Military and Veterans

Veterans Day Parade

Many retailers offer discounts on goods and services for active duty or veteran military personnel out of respect for those who serve, and some of these discounts are well worth taking advantage of. But with dozens of deals and policies varying by business, it can be tough to navigate.

With Veteran’s Day right around the corner, we thought it was high time we update our guide to where you can find military discounts, and how they might apply.

How to Get Military Discounts

Some businesses advertise their military discounts prominently, but at many you may have to ask, show ID or other proof of service, or even be in uniform to get a discount. Complicating matters further, many national retailers (particularly franchises) offer discounts that may vary from location to location; you’re most likely to find deals at locations near military bases.

So despite what’s on this list, you’ll want to check with your local retailer to be sure what discount is offered.

What Discounts to Expect

The discounts available, when you’re willing to jump through the hoops to get them, can vary greatly in quality. But many retailers will offer around 10 percent off. If you’re a military member or veteran, you can usually find car manufacturers willing to offer you $500 or more off, though deals depend on what make you’re shopping for as well as when you’re shopping for it.

Travel deals are also common, but typically vague. Many hotels offer discounted rates for military members and families on leisure travel that are based on government per diem rates, which may or may not be the best deal you can find.

No matter where you’re shopping or what you’re shopping for, be sure to ask about a military discount before you buy. Even retailers who aren’t on this list may offer military discounts — you just don’t know until you ask.

Here’s a look at the deals.

Store Discount Who’s Eligible? Details
24 Hour Fitness Discounted membership Active duty
Alamo Rent A Car Discounted rates Active duty
AMC Theatres Discounted tickets Active duty, retirees, and family Typically after 4PM
Apple Discounted products Active duty, veterans, reservists, National Guard members, and family
Applebee’s 10% off, free entree on Veterans Day Active duty and veterans
AT&T Wireless 15% off phone plans Active duty, veterans, and qualified military spouses In-store only
Baskin-Robbins 10% off Varies
Bass Pro Shops 10% off Active duty and retired For one week, beginning on the 15th of every month
Best Buy Up to 10% off Varies
Best Western Based on government per diem Active duty
Burger King 10% off Varies
Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s 10% off Varies
Chick-fil-A Discounted pricing, free meals on Military Appreciation Nights Varies
Choice Hotels Based on government per diem Active duty, retired, and family
Chrysler Up to $500 Active duty, active reservists, retirees, and veterans discharged within the last 12 months
CiCi’s Pizza 10% off Varies
Cinemark Movie Theatres Discounted tickets Active duty
Dairy Queen 10% or more off Varies May only be available certain days of the week or to uniformed personnel
Dell Up to 30% off Active duty, veterans, and families
Ford $500 bonus cash Active duty, reservists, National Guard members, veterans (within 180 days of discharge), and family Offer only good on eligible models
Fuddruckers 10-20% off Varies
Geico Up to 15% off Active duty, National Guard members, reservists, and retired
General Motors Discounted pricing, up to thousands off Active duty, active reservists, National Guard members, retirees, veterans discharged within the last 12 months, and spouses
Greyhound 10% off Active duty, retired, and family
Hard Rock Cafe 15% off Varies
Hertz Discounted rates Active duty
Hewlett-Packard Various discounts Varies
Hilton Hotels & Resorts Based on government per diem, 10% off leisure stays with Military Family Rate Active duty, reservists, retired, and family
Home Depot 10% off Active duty, reservists, retired, disabled veterans, and family
Honda $500 off Active duty, reservists, spouses, retirees, and veterans (within 180 days of discharge) Only available if you finance or lease from Honda
Howard Johnson Based on government per diem Active duty Depending on availability
Hyundai $500 off Active duty, reservists, National Guard members, retirees, veterans, and spouses Only for select 2014, all 2015, and all 2016 models
Jiffy Lube Up to 15% off Varies
Kohl’s 15% off Varies
La Quinta Inns & Suites Based on government per diem Active duty
Lowe’s 10% off Active duty, reservists, National Guard members, retirees, veterans receiving VA benefits, and family
Marriott Hotels Based on government per diem Active duty
Mazda $500 off Active duty; reservists, veterans, and retirees (within 12 months of discharge/retirement) Only for 2015 and 2016 models
Motel 6 10% off Active duty, retirees, and family
National Car Rental Discounted rates Active duty, retired, and family
National Park Service Free Annual Pass Active duty, family, reservists, and National Guard members
Nike 10% off Active duty, reservists, and retirees
Nissan Varies Active duty, reservists, retirees, veterans (within 12 months of discharge), and spouses and partners
Old Navy 10% off Varies Mondays
Pep Boys 10% off Active duty, National Guard members, reservists, and retired Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays
Regal Entertainment Group Varies Varies
Scion $500 off Active duty, reservists, National Guard members, retirees and veterans (within one year of service), and family
Shoney’s 15% off Varies May have to wear a uniform
Showcase Cinemas $5.50 or $7.50 per ticket Active duty and family
Sprint Monthly service discount Active duty and retirees
Starwood Hotels & Resorts Based on government per diem Active duty
Toyota $500 rebate Active duty, retirees and veterans (discharged within 12 months), and family
Verizon Wireless 15% off monthly plan and 25% off select accessories Active duty and veterans
YMCA Free membership and child care Families of active duty service members

High-Tech Means Higher Sales for Many Small Retailers


NEW YORK (AP) — An independent retailer may not look like the cutting edge of technology, but these small businesses increasingly turn to apps and sophisticated software to connect with customers.

Small retailers use high-tech innovations to build relationships with customers; they often can’t compete with big chains on prices, so they aim at better, individualized service. Some of the technology is designed for smaller companies, while some retailers find ways to turn a widely-used computer program or app to their advantage. They’re also able to implement technology faster than many giant retailers because they’re not operating hundreds or thousands of stores.

“Using technology enables the small business to cater to a customer’s needs,” says Michael Moeser, a retailing executive with Javelin Strategy & Research, a consulting company based in Pleasanton, California.

One example: an app called Belly that lets shoppers accumulate rewards points at thousands of small businesses. It helps create an emotional connection between the store and shopper, Moeser says.

Another app called Dolly helps a retailer arrange for merchandise to be picked up from a store and quickly delivered to a customer, saving the shopper from lugging home big packages.

More ways that small retailers use technology:

GO WHERE THE CUSTOMERS ARE

Some small retailers sell on online marketplaces that specialize in one type of merchandise. The sites are similar to Etsy, the marketplace that focuses on goods like jewelry and clothes made by artisans.

Cream City Music sells more than 1,800 items from guitar picks to vintage instruments on Reverb.com, a musical equipment marketplace. The retailer began selling on Reverb.com two years ago.

“People on that website are specifically looking for (musical) products,” says owner Brian Douglas, whose company is based in Brookfield, Wisconsin.

Cream City Music has a brick-and-mortar store and a website, but wants to take advantage of any sales opportunity it can. It’s getting results, Douglas says. Sales from Reverb.com are growing by double digit percentages each month.

AN ONLINE PERSONAL SHOPPER

Soon after online shoppers land on the websites for O’Neill Clothing and Metal Mulisha, the retailers’ software starts suggesting products to buy. The recommendations aren’t random; the software, a computer program called Reflektion, finds out where the shopper is located, and a few clicks on surf or motorbike clothes tells the system enough to start suggesting more merchandise. The more a customer clicks, the more information the system gathers, and the more likely O’Neill and Metal Mulisha are to make a sale, says Daniel Neukomm, CEO of the retailers’ parent, Irvine, California-based La Jolla Group.

The software is more advanced than programs on other sites that make suggestions based on a shopper’s order history, Neukomm says. If a shopper is looking at garments designed as active wear rather than fashion, the software will take that into account. If someone from Wisconsin visits the site, the software is likely to suggest hoodies rather than surfing shorts.

The number of visits to O’Neill and Metal Mulisha that result in sales has increased 25 percent because of the software. The more time a shopper spends on the sites, the more likely the program is to select an item a customer will buy, Neukomm says.

“Like a good wine, it gets better with age,” he says.

TEXT YOUR WAY TO A SALE

Tara Mikolay and her sales staff send hundreds of individual texts to her jewelry store’s customers each week. About half lead to a purchase.

Mikolay, owner of Desires by Mikolay in Chappaqua, New York, tailors each text to a particular customer, sending reminders to husbands about their wives’ upcoming birthdays and including photos with suggestions about what they might buy. She texts women customers with photos of new merchandise that fit their style.

While individual texts are labor-intensive, they’re more effective than mass texting would be, Mikolay says. Even when a customer doesn’t immediately make a purchase, they’re likely to buy when the next big occasion like an anniversary comes around.

“I could place full-page ad in a newspaper, but my chances for making a sale are next to none,” she says. “But I spend time manually doing texting and get great results. It’s a no-brainer.

Some Retailers Are Better at Accepting Returns Than Others

2015 Los Angeles TimesFor Andrew Bernstein, holiday gift returns are a pain in the neck — unless you’re dealing with a company that goes the extra mile for customers looking for a return.

“I had an issue once with a Motorola Moto 360,” says Bernstein. “It was around three or four months after buying it at Best Buy. The screen stopped working, and it wouldn’t power on. I called Motorola to process a return, and they refused.”

Motorola told Bernstein if he didn’t have the serial number (he threw away the box the device came in), the company wouldn’t honor his request for a return. “After hearing that, I went to Best Buy with the printed out receipt and they processed a replacement,” he said. “I have had amazing experiences with Best Buy, and Amazon has been good about returns, too.”

Bernstein’s return saga should resonate with shoppers this holiday season.

According to GOBankingRates.com, 69 percent of Americans say they returned at least some of their holiday gifts last year.

Retailers that do a good job of expediting gift and product returns includeNordstrom (JWN), L.L. Bean, Costco (COST) and Bed Bath & Beyond (BBY),GOBankingRates says in a survey. “Each offers much more flexible return policies that other stores,” the company states.

For consumers, finding a store or retail outlet with a flexible purchase return policy is the Holy Grail of post-holiday shopping. “Return policies should be a big consideration for holiday shoppers — two-thirds of people return at least one holiday gift,” says Elyssa Kirkham, lead reporter on the GOBankingRates study. “Shopping at stores that are return-friendly can make life a lot easier if you have to make adjustments to your shopping list later on. It’ll also allow you to give guilt-free knowing your recipient won’t face a lot of hassle if they decide to return it.”

In addition to the perennial return favorites listed above, J.C. Penney (JCP), Staples (SPLS), Zappos, REI, Macy’s (M) and Kohl’s (KSS) all made GOBankingRate’s “Top 10” list for good product return experiences. On the down side, Forever 21, Kmart, Barnes & Noble (BKS), GameStop (GME) and Sears (SHLD) made its “worst” return policies list.

What makes a good and flexible purchase return policy? The study says “generous return windows” count highly among retail analysts. 80 percent of the best return policies place no time limits on returns, and the other 20 percent give customers a generous 365 days to make returns, the survey notes.

Accepting returns without receipts is also huge. 90 percent of stores surveyed will do so, but many only offer store credit in return.

Retailers fall off the beam in other purchase return areas, too. That’s especially so in not fully explaining their return policies and in not making it easy and clear for customers to locate return lines in stores, according to a separate study on the topic by StellaService, a New York City-based customer service performance analytical firm.

The trick for holiday shoppers is to take some pre-return steps to ensure a good experience. For instance, apply for the store’s credit card program where you buy your gifts. That way they will have records of what you bought if you don’t have a receipt, says Howard Schaffer, vice president of merchandising for Offers.com.

“Also, take pictures of your receipts and when possible have the store email the receipt to you so you also can find it on your phone when you go to return the items,” Schaffer advises. “And, when returning items online it’s important to be aware of the store’s guarantee. Oftentimes online items can only be returned up to 30-days from the purchase date.”

Schaffer also advises shopping at stores like Kohl’s, that will take back any product, at any time, for any reason. “Do keep in mind that without a receipt you may receive a lower refund than what you paid due to fluctuation in product pricing,” he says. Above all, stay calm, Schaffer emphasizes. “We understand that returning a product can be stressful but often times it is just as stressful for the sales associate trying to assist you,” he notes. “A stressed associate is more likely to help a calm and considerate customer than a rude one.”