Posted by Elisabeth Leamy, Fri Jul 25 2008, 10:53PM

Outlet malls are one of the top tourist destinations in the summertime

Outlet malls are one of the top tourist destinations in the summertime. Here in the Washington, DC area, they rival the number of visitors that come to see the Washington Monument, the Air and Space Museum, and the Capitol!

152 acres. 220 stores. A mall a mile long. It's enough to make your head spin and your feet hurt. A big outlet mall can see 30-thousand shoppers in a single day. But will those shoppers find huge savings at a huge outlet mall? It depends.

Outlet malls claim they sell merchandise for thirty to seventy percent less than you'll find elsewhere. Some sell damaged or imperfect goods at cut rates. Some sell second-season merchandise that has already made the rounds at regular retail stores. And others claim they can cut prices by cutting out the middleman.

A producer and I systematically compared prices at an outlet mall and a regular mall. Sure enough, we found name-brand perfume for just $65 at the outlet. The same bottle was $105 at a regular mall. We discovered a jewelry outlet that was having a two-for-one sale on designer watches. The regular retail arm of the company was not. On the other hand, we saw brand-name sneakers for sixteen dollars less at a regular retail store that was having a killer sale.

Outlet malls are victims of their own success. Or rather we're victims of their own success. There just isn't enough imperfect and second-season merchandise to stock the outlet malls that now dot the landscape nationwide. So some stores have started designing inexpensive lines just for their outlets. Others manufacture cheaper versions of their most popular merchandise. That can be a bargain ľor a bummer. I once bought a pair of outlet store jeans that were tattered and torn after just ten weeks of wear.

Think of it this way: since outlet prices are pretty good, and sales at standard stores are worth waiting for, then sales at outlet malls may be the ultimate! Just be sure to compare prices and assess quality.

DO YOUR HOMEWORK:

1. Before you go to the outlet mall, register as a frequent shopper at their website That entitles you to additional member discounts on top of existing low prices and sales. Most outlet malls are owned by a handful of companies. Here are the main ones to get you started: www.tangeroutlet.com; www.premiumoutlets.com; primeoutlets.com.
2. Wear comfortable shoes and never shop on an empty stomach! Those are two sure ways to make hasty choices.
3. Know how much you're willing to spend for a given item and base your buying decisions on that rather that on "compare at" price tags or overblown "sale" signs.
4. Don't buy things just because they're bargains. Make sure you really want and need them.
5. Outlet malls can be overwhelming and some stores don't accept returns. Put items on hold as you go through the mall, then work your way back and buy the things you really want.
6. Examine articles to see if they're made well and out of quality materials.

WHERE TO COMPLAIN:
If outlet mall merchandise is substandard and it wasn't marked "as is," try returning to the store where you bought it. If you're pleasant but firm you may be able to get a refund even at a store with a "no refunds" policy.