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Are Outlet Malls Really A Better Deal? WCCO Went Shopping To Find Out

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(credit: CBS) Liz Collin
At 15 years old, Liz Collin made her broadcast debut covering...
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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Along with many malls and big box retailers, dozens of stores at outlet malls in Minnesota will also be open come eight o’clock Thursday night, but we wondered are outlet malls really a better deal?

Beyond Albertville, shoppers can also check out deals in Medford and come next summer an outlet mall in Eagan will open its doors.

But before you start crossing items off of your Christmas shopping list at the outlets, we checked out five popular stores.

Taking the 40 minute drive from the Twin Cities gives shoppers even more time to get excited about their trip. The billboards offer a steady reminder of all they’ll save on the latest styles.

Albertville Premium Outlets is Minnesota’s largest outlet mall with 100 stores, a mix of designer names, housewares and specialty items.

“There’s lots of great sales here,” one shopper told us. “Always.”

Sure, there are sales but do outlets really offer the lowest price?

“I don’t know. I really don’t know,” another shopper said.

We went shopping at five popular stores: Columbia, Gap, Banana Republic, Carter’s, and Coach.

At Columbia, there seemed to be steep discounts on most racks of merchandise. We ended up with a women’s winter coat. We paid $169.90 at the outlet. The same coat was selling in a regular Columbia store for $60 more, but when we checked online, we found the same style selling for $10 less than the outlet price.

Tina Wilcox is the CEO of Black, a retail brand agency.

“You shouldn’t ever assume it’s the lowest price,” Wilcox said.

She doesn’t want shoppers to be deceived by the reduced price tags at the outlets. And when it comes to what’s inside, Wilcox says we should know it’s not usually a fair price comparison.

“I think outlet shopping can be really great for people if they know what they’re looking for and what they’re looking at,” Wilcox said.

Like what we found on our trip to the Coach outlet. Eighty percent of what you find in there is made specifically for those stores. Meaning, you won’t find most of it a regular retailer. To be able to sell bags, wallets, and accessories at such a discount, Wilcox says manufactures use less expensive material or cut corners on extra detailing.

With a 50 percent off coupon they were passing out at the door at the outlet, we paid $40.05 for a wallet and $143.55 for a leather tote. We found similar items at a Coach store in the mall priced at nearly twice as much, $78 for the wallet and $298 for the purse. But, again, they are not the same.

If you do find something that seems to be similar at the outlets, Wilcox suggests taking a close look at the outlet product since it could have flaws.

When it comes to what items you’ll consistently save on, it’s best to keep it basic. Wilcox believes socks, underwear and T-shirts are a safe bet. At Gap, we bought a 6-pack of athletic socks for $6.49. For the same amount at a mall store we’d pay $17 more.

At Banana Republic, we bought a basic men’s brown shoe at the outlet for $82.49. We would have paid $57.50 more at the mall for the same pair.

When we went looking for baby clothes at Albertville, we learned another lesson in outlet shopping.

At Carter’s, we found discounts all over but when we to a regular store, we found the exact same prices.

The same boys outfit sold for 60 percent off at both stores and the same girls sweater for 25 percent off.

Wilcox says it’s because the clothes are inexpensive to begin with.

“There’s a pretty tight margin when it comes to manufacturing infant wear, and so you’re not going to see as big of a difference when you go to the outlet,” Wilcox said.

Altogether, national studies have shown shoppers will save an average of 38 percent at the outlet mall, but Wilcox says shoppers shouldn’t succumb to sticker joy.

“Just because it might be a lesser price, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good deal,” Wilcox said.

Just because you take the drive doesn’t mean you have to buy.

Wilcox told Liz that the outlet mall industry is growing considerably. Just one traditional mall has been built in the US in the last seven years, while nine outlets will open next year across the country. That includes the one in Eagan.

Below are answers to some outlet shopping questions:

Should I shop early or late on Black Friday?

– Determine if you are in the market for anything featured as an early bird special or doorbuster deal and come out early (before stores open) to ensure you get those before they’re gone.

– If you can wait, consider coming out toward the end of Black Friday when the crowds have died down but the deals are still available.

– Plan your trip. A center map and store list are available online. Albertville Premium Outlets is large and it’s best to pre-plan your route so you make sure you hit all the stores on your list as efficiently as possible.

– Buy what you love now. Don’t wait – it will be gone tomorrow. Merchandise in the outlets sells fast and once they’re gone, the item may never be sold again.

– Check the return policy before making a purchase. Most stores have traditional return policies but it’s best to check.

How can I find out about deals early?

– Sales and special deals are being added constantly to the Premium Outlets Deal of the Day calendar. Check back frequently to view the latest sale information at Albertville Premium Outlets.

How can I save even more?

– Sign up for the VIP Shopper Club for FREE at www.premiumoutlets.com/vip to receive special mailings with added savings. Immediately upon signing up, you will receive a voucher for a VIP coupon book worth hundreds of dollars of additional savings at any Premium Outlets center; have access to exclusive online coupons, insider news and info, shopping tips and more.

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