Are you outlet mall savvy? Experts offer tips on eve of Winnipeg's big mall opening

When is a sale not a sale?

A huge new outlet mall is set to open in Winnipeg next week, but there's sometimes a catch to those low prices.

They don't necessarily mean you're getting a bargain, consumer experts say.

Though you might think you're outsmarting people who pay full ticket for their Banana Republic blazers or Calvin Klein jeans at the big malls, the versions you bought at a cut price might not be the same after all.

Sometimes an item is cheap because it is, well … cheap, says Mark Ellwood, a New York City-based consumer journalist.

A lot of the inventory in those stores was designed as outlet-only — it was never an item that was in the full-price store, he said.

"This doesn't mean it's not a cute skirt or a great $20 shirt, but it was never a $100 shirt."

Outlet Collection Winnipeg, which opens May 3 across from Ikea at Kenaston Boulevard and Sterling Lyon Parkway, will house up to 100 retailers in a 400,000-square-foot centre.

Among the retailers will be 30 newcomers to this market, including Saks Fifth Avenue Off 5th, Calvin Klein Outlet and Designer Shoe Warehouse.

Outlet malls have become big business because people love to score a bargain, so why wouldn't stores want them to believe they're getting one, said Ellwood, author of the book Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World. 

There are now more Nordstrom Rack stores — the off-price retail division of the major department store — than there are Nordstroms in the United States, he said.

"Unless they're terrible at buying products at Nordstrom, that tells you there's stuff in there that they had to buy specially for the Rack."

That said, there are still many deals around, such as end-of-season clothing that was in the full-price stores, said Jody Rohlena, a New York City-area journalist who has worked at Consumer Reports and ShopSmart magazines.

"Outlet malls can be a great place to find bargains, but you have to know how to spot the good stuff," she said.

"Often that may mean first-quality items from last season or odd sizes that didn't sell in flagship stores. Head to the back of the outlet store first; this is where you'll typically find marked-down items from flagship stores."

As well, some items expressly made for outlet stores aren't always a lot lower in quality. Some are definitely cut-rate but with others, you'd need a keen eye to recognize they're not flagship store originals, Rohlena said.

Outlet items are often produced in the same place and using the same fabrics as the full line, but there will be some detailing missing.

"When I worked at ShopSmart magazine, we evaluated outlet items with a textiles expert. Some outlet-exclusive apparel was worth the money, but look for telltale details," said Rohlena.

Make sure hemlines are even, there are no loose threads and finishing details are there, such as a lining in a skirt or the reinforcement behind a row of buttons, she said. Those sorts of things will set the cheap items apart from the quality ones.

Another way to tell the outlet items from the full-line ones is to examine the label, Ellwood said.

"The reason they change the label is to prevent people from returning outlet mall merchandise for refunds at full-price stores."

So with that, here are some things to keep in mind when navigating the outlet jungle:


Ignore the 'retail price'

Ellwood suggests covering that up with your finger and gauging the item on its actual price.

Those other tags — "retail value" or "compare at" — try to make the deal look juicier. Those phrases are legal workarounds to avoid admitting the goods were never made for regular stores.

"Don't look at the $50. Ask yourself, 'Is it worth that $9.99?' And if you think it is, then just buy it."

Forget about how much you think you're saving.


Make the sales associate an ally

"Whenever you're shopping for discounts, your best advocate, your best ally, is the sales associate," Ellwood said. "If you go in and say, 'Hey, I'm going to shop here quite a lot, can you give me some advice?' it's in their best interest to keep you as a happy, long-term customer."

Good sales associates will know that and point you in the right direction for deals, he said.

"You would be surprised how helpful and how chatty they are."


Avoid anything marked 'outlet exclusive'

This is a sneaky way of saying "never sold at full price," Ellwood said. 

"It's never a good deal to buy an item that was specially made for the outlet. After all, this was just designed to be cheap rather than a great value markdown.

"So how do you guesstimate whether an outlet store's merchandise is specially made for the outlet or a real markdown? Rule of thumb: Google and find out how many outlet stores the brand operates in total — 12 or fewer, and you're pretty sure to be snapping up marked-down merch; 12 or more, and the economies of scale mean the stock is likely dominated with special cheap outlet-exclusives."


Check for extra savings

Before you go to an outlet, first check the website for any coupons, Rohlena said.

"And when you get there, make your first stop the guest services desk, where you may be able to score additional coupons for discounts or even free stuff."


Back first

Go to the back of the store first. That's where you'll typically find marked-down items from flagship stores, Rohlena said.


Be certain

Before you buy, make sure items aren't marked final sale, unless you're absolutely sure you won't change your mind, Rohlena said.