7 tips to save more at outlet stores

Get more for your money and pile on the discounts with these outlet store hacks.

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Outlet stores can be a tremendous bargain, but retailers are wise to the outlet allure, and it could cost you—unless you know the shopping secrets.

The lion’s share of shoppers are looking for deep discounts these days—and they know outlets are the place to get them. In response, brands are opening more outlet stores than ever before, some of them close to town, rather than hours away. Even luxury retailers, like Saks and Nordstrom, are building low-priced locations at a faster pace than their primary retail stores, says the Wall Street Journal.

Though outlet store prices are on perma-discount, the money they earn is anything but meager. According to Cowen Consumer Tracker Survey, traffic to outlets were at a two-year peak at 26% in 2016.

The 3 biggest mistakes outlet shoppers make

To make sure you don’t unwittingly overspend, try to avoid these common shopping slip-ups, says Andrea Woroch, consumer and savings expert:

#1: Going just for fun, as an activity. “Everything looks like such a good deal—it can be overwhelming,” she says. “You end up buying a bunch of stuff, and then you’re stuck with goods you don’t need or want.” Smart strategy: Have a plan in mind, and only buy what you’re shopping for. And if you tend to overspend, bring only the cash amount you are okay parting with and then budget accordingly.

#2: Not trying on clothes. Just because you’re a size 10 at the retail location, it doesn’t mean you’ll be the same size at the outlets. There may be manufacturing errors or an entirely different fabric or cut in the outlet version.

#3: Not asking about the return policy. “Don’t just assume they have same policy as regular store,” says Woroch. “They’re often different, especially during the holidays.”

So how do you stay on top of the outlet game, meaning pay less and get more value for your money? Retail savings experts recommend the following cardinal rules:

7 best outlet shopping tips

Tip: Beware of merchandise made specifically for outlets.

Outlets are no longer just a heavenly dumping ground for top-quality items at low prices. They do still offer overstock from regular locations, but they also pepper in products of inferior quality that increase a brand’s profit margin. “Items are still pretty good quality, but you have to assess the fit, material, and stitching,” says Woroch. For example, look at the inside of a coat and check to see if the seams are finished or if it has a lining, she’s says. Or the differences may be minor, such as a zipper instead of buttons.

If you’re not sure of an item’s quality, you can always ask. “Ask the sales associate if product was made for outlet store,” says Woroch. “It might help you make a better assessment of the value.”

Tip: Head to the back of the store for the best deals.

How often do you see a clearance rack right inside the front door of a store? Exactly. “Just like regular retail stores, the best deals in outlet stores are usually in the back near the fitting rooms,” says Jeanette Pavini, Savings Expert at Coupons.com. Once you exhaust what the back of the store has to offer, work your way up to the front and peruse the relatively pricier items.

Tip: Take advantage of bulk discounts.

Provided you’re in the market for what’s on offer, don’t pass up the bulk discounts. “Outlets love to offer deals that make it impossible to buy just one of an item,” says Pavini. “For example buy one, get two free camisoles. I’ve even seen clearance sections with buy two, get six free on any clearance items.”

Tip: Always ask about the return policy.

This cannot be stressed enough: Return policies at outlet stores can be much less forgiving than at retail locations. Plus, if your local outlet mall is a significant distance from where you live, your best intentions to get back there may fall by the wayside. “Outlet stores typically are far away, but people will buy on impulse and figure they’ll return later,” says Woroch. “If the return window is 30 days and it’s 1 1/2 hours from home, what’s the likelihood you’ll bring it back?”

And while you’re at it, ask about their price adjustment policy—often stores will give you the difference, if you notice a sale after your purchase.

Tip: Never shop without a coupon—even at an outlet.

“I don’t like to buy anything at the price that’s offered,” says Woroch. “I always wait until I have a coupon.” Sometimes the initial outlet discount isn’t that significant—maybe $5 off a $30 item—but 40% off coupons are commonplace, she says. If you join a brand’s membership program, they’ll typically give you another 20% off, and alert you to seasonal sales and extra coupons ahead of time.

Tip: Save your outlet trip for a holiday weekend.

If you can time your trip to the outlets for a holiday weekend, your wallet will reap big rewards. “You’ll get discounts on top of reduced prices,” says Woroch. In the face of such deals, you’ll want to think ahead to any gift buying you have coming up. “With labor day coming up, think ahead to upcoming celebrations,” she adds. “Birthdays? Back to school? Holidays? Start knocking gifts off your list.”

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Tip: Regular retail stores are often located within outlet malls.

Even retail megastores aren’t above the bait-and-switch. “Not every store in an outlet mall is necessarily an outlet,” says Pavini. “Regular retail stores are often mixed in. They may be required to offer discounted goods, but [the savings] could be nominal.”

“You can find some really good deals at outlets,” says Woroch. “But take inventory of what you already have. Even if something is a good deal, if you have one just like it at home, you don’t need another—save your money.”