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Outlet shopping - how to make it work

July 26, 1998|By LAURA ERNDE

Outlet shopper Karen Wisentamer says outlet centers are full of bargains - if you know how to find them.

"You have to know how to shop and you have to know quality," said Wisentamer, 44, of McLean, Va., on a break from a recent shopping trip at Blue Ridge Outlet Center in Martinsburg, W.Va.

Her best advice: be patient and go with a specific purchase in mind.

"Don't buy on impulse," she said.

When Prime Outlets at Hagerstown opens its first 60 stores on Aug. 7, some local shoppers may be introduced to the outlet experience for the first time.

Shoppers and retail industry experts offered some tips on navigating an outlet center and finding good deals.

An outlet center is different than a shopping mall because most outlet stores offer merchandise directly from the manufacturer, said Randy Marks, publisher of "Outlet Bound, Guide to the Nation's Best Outlets."

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"Instead of store names, you're going to notice brand names," he said.

J. Crew, Polo Ralph Lauren, Nine West and DKNY are a few of the brands that will be available at Prime Outlets.

Sometimes, the products sold at the outlets are one season behind what's at the mall, he said.

A few merchants disguise their brand names. Estee Lauder, for instance, will sell products at the Cosmetics Company Store at Prime Outlets, he said.

Not all outlet stores sell items directly from the manufacturer. When in doubt, ask, he said.

For instance, KB Toy Outlet and the Dress Barn also operate stores at malls. The outlet stores often sell clearance or discontinued items, he said.

Good buys can be found at any of the outlet stores, Marks said.

"It's really all about brand loyalty. People should just shop for the brands they recognize and trust," Marks said. "People should basically have a good sense of what a quality item is."

Quality is the main reason Maxene Fernstrom of Shepherdstown, W.Va., shops at the Blue Ridge Outlets.

"There isn't much shopping around and the outlets tend to have the higher-end items. Out here in exurbia, it gives us a better choice," she said.

If not for the outlets, Fernstrom, 50, said she would do a lot of her gift shopping by catalog or over the Internet.

Others look to outlets for cheaper prices.

Carolyn Smith, 58, who lives south of Hagerstown, travels to Blue Ridge Outlets about three times a year to stock up on inexpensive pantyhose.

One example of a bargain Marks recently found: A navy blazer with an original retail price of $216 was marked down to $162 at Jones New York and then placed on the 50-percent-off rack for a final price of $81.

But shoppers who aren't brand loyal may not find outlet shopping a bargain.

Dorothy Wilson, 52, of Moorefield, W.Va., didn't buy anything on a recent trip to Blue Ridge Outlets.

"Some things here I see at Wal-Mart $20 cheaper," she said.

As far as outlets go, the Baltimore-based Prime Retail has a good reputation in the industry, Marks said.

"They're known for bringing together a nice mixture of famous American brand names. They make shopping very easy," he said.

To better prepare for an outlet trip, a little research goes a long way, said Prime Retail.

Get a list of stores and learn about available specials and coupons.

When you go, wear comfortable clothing and shoes and bring a list, Prime Retail says.

Carefully inspect clothes for irregularities.

While most merchandise in outlet centers is first quality, some things have flaws.

An article in the August issue of Consumer Reports says that some stores make clothing specifically for outlet stores that may be of lesser quality.

When in doubt, ask the sales associate, the article said.

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