4 Reasons Outlet Malls Aren't a Great Deal (And 4 Tips to Actually Save Money)

When it comes to saving money, the great American outlet mall might not actually be all it’s cracked up to be.
Updated May 8, 2024
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For decades, outlet malls have been seen as the gold standard to buy brand names at the lowest price. 

Even Amazon can’t compare (unless you want to keep more money in your bank account and use the site to find a cheap, knock-off version) with the discounted luxury brands found at the outlets.

But what if instead of saving you money outlet malls drive you to waste too much money on mediocre goods?

Here's why outlet malls might be hurting your efforts to save more money, and a few alternative solutions for you to find high-quality goods that won’t break the bank.

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Many major brands make intentionally lower-quality clothes just for outlets

_KUBE_/Adobe woman holding hangers with clothes

Goods sold at outlets might not actually be slightly marred versions of brands’ top-shelf items, according to the Federal Trade Commission. 

Instead, luxury brands now make items with the sole purpose of selling them at cheap outlet prices — which means the cheapness is baked into the product from the beginning.

For instance, expensive leather shoes from your favorite brand might cost hundreds of dollars and last for years, but the discounted, outlet version of those same shoes might be made from cheap synthetic material and last a few seasons at best.

Outlet malls count on customers assuming they’re getting the best deal

Mediteraneo/Adobe father and son buying food

If you’re buying an everyday product like gas or groceries, you might do a little bit of research about where you’ll get the best deal.

But when you head to an outlet mall, you assume you’re getting the best possible deal on a brand-name product. After all, why would you bother to price-check a product sold at a discount by a luxury brand?

Outlet malls don’t always take returns

Voyagerix/Adobe scissor cutting price tag from pink shirt woman is wearing

If you’ve ever shopped the sales rack at a Gap or Old Navy, you know damaged, on-sale items are rarely returnable. 

So when an entire store bills itself as a sales hub for slightly damaged goods, it’s easy to assume nothing you get there can be returned. Plus, since outlet malls are typically located out of town, it could be a hassle to return an item.

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Gas prices alone can make shopping at outlets less affordable

rh2010/Adobe woman paying with phone for gasoline

Unlike regular malls, outlet malls have historically been built on the outskirts of town (or even further afield outside city boundaries).

With gas prices remaining high around the country, travel costs alone could outweigh any money you saved by shopping at an outlet instead of a typical retail store.

That said, shopping at an outlet mall can still be a good way to lock down a name-brand discount. Follow the tips below to make sure the next time you shop at an outlet mall, you’re getting the best possible deal.

Tip 1: Examine every purchase closely to make sure it’s the quality you expect

Ihor/Adobe woman examining furniture for sale at modern furnishing store

Don’t assume every product sold at an outlet store was made with the same high quality you expect from any given name brand. Instead, look closely at the label and assess the quality of the product on your own before making a purchase.

Tip 2 : Compare prices online before committing to a purchase

Gorodenkoff/Adobe online fashion store

It’s true that you might be getting the best deal on a particular item if you buy it at an outlet, but it’s just as true that you might not be.

Outlets are counting on you to assume the former. Don’t let them get away with it — download a price-comparison app so you can search for products in real time and figure out if you’re really getting a deal or not.

Tip 3: Figure out the return policy ahead of time

rh2010/Adobe woman client in the pharmacy store

Before you make any outlet purchase, don’t assume you know the store’s return policy. Go out of your way to get familiar with it. 

Make sure to ask your cashier whether you can return outlet purchases at all, and, if so, if you can print a return label online and ship the product back from your home.

Similarly, if the outlet does take returns, ask if you can return products to one of the company’s non-outlet stores. (And don’t forget the most important tip: if the store does have a return policy and you end up unhappy with your purchase, don’t forget to send the item back so you can return some cash to your wallet!)

Tip 4: Shop at online outlets instead of brick-and-mortar stores

Nina L/peopleimages.com/Adobe headphones to listen to music

Name brands like REI and Nordstrom have online outlets in addition to in-person, brick-and-mortar outlet stores. 

If you’re interested in finding a truly stellar outlet deal, shopping online will make it easier for you to price check purchases ahead of time. Plus, it saves you the time and gas you’d spend driving to an out-of-town outlet.

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Bottom line

Africa Studio/Adobe girls with shopping bags

The nearest outlet mall could be a great place to search for deals, but if you want to avoid wasting money, be aware that its reputation for cheap, quality goods could be completely unearned.

Still, if you’re an avid outlet mall shopper, don’t feel pressured to give up on outlet malls altogether.

Just follow the tips we listed and you’ll have a much better chance of avoiding low-quality goods and capitalizing on truly stand-out deals.

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Author Details

Michelle Smith Michelle Smith has spent a decade writing for and about small businesses. She specializes in all things finance and has written for publications like G2 and SmallBizDaily. When she's not writing for work at her desk, you can usually find her writing for pleasure near large bodies of water.

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