The main draw of outlet shopping is the promise of name brands at low prices, but customers need to be savvy when they hit these stores.
Merchandise at outlet stores comes from a variety of sources and isn't always leftover product from the brands' full-price operations.
Department store outlet concepts, such as Bloomingdale's Outlet and Nordstrom Rack, stock a mix of merchandise, including end-of-season and clearance products, returned items from full-line stores, excess inventory from vendors and outlet-only styles.
At Gap Outlet and Banana Republic Factory Store, all merchandise is designed, produced and manufactured specifically for those locations — meaning the items were never offered at the chains' full-price stores.
Other outlets offer damaged or cosmetically flawed pieces, often called "seconds."
At gourmet cookware chain Le Creuset at Camarillo Premium Outlets, for example, a 5.5-quart round French oven was marked as a "seconds" piece recently — bearing an orange sticker instead of the white "firsts" sticker — and priced at $199. The same item retails for $239.95 at Sur La Table and $245 at Williams-Sonoma.
The only difference? A splattering of orange paint on the inside of the outlet piece, and an uneven paint job on its lid.
Frequent outlet shoppers such as Tammy Fisher, a stay-at-home mom from Scottsdale, Ariz., say they're more discriminating about what they buy at factory locations.
"Look everything over, make sure it doesn't have stains on it or holes in it," Fisher, 39, said while shopping at Camarillo Premium Outlets recently with her family. "You have to be careful what you buy because you can get wrapped up in the prices."
Other stores at outlet malls aren't even true outlet concepts.
There's an H&M at Citadel Outlets in the City of Commerce, but it's no different from the retailer's stores at traditional shopping centers. At Forever 21's outlet mall locations, which include Camarillo Premium Outlets and Las Americas Premium Outlets in San Diego, the shops carry additional sale items but are technically full-price stores, said Larry Meyer, executive vice president of the Los Angeles chain.
And don't count on generous return policies, which are often limited or eliminated at outlets.
Premium denim maker Joe's Jeans sells excess inventory through its outlet locations, where shoppers can buy a pair of jeans for far less than the typical retail price of $170 or more. The caveat: no returns, and exchanges are accepted only within seven days of purchase.