For good buys, elbow your way through a factory outlet
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Discount stores such as K-Mart and Caldor fall into a different category. ''Fashion-conscious shoppers won't go to K-Mart for their wardrobes,'' observes Iris Ellis, publisher of ''Save on Shopping,'' a national directory of off-price stores. ''Toasters and health and beauty aids, maybe, but not clothes.''Skip to next paragraph
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Recognizing that people might not be willing to travel to a remote location for limited types of merchandise, many factory outlets band together in ''cluster outlets.'' In Fall River, Mass., for example, one big warehouse holds an Adidas running equipment store, a men's and boy's apparel store, a shoe store , and a children's clothing store (mainly from Carters). Across the street is another children's apparel store and a women's apparel store. And next door sits Parker's Candies.
Factory outlets are big business for out-of-the-way manufacturing towns, and city governments are capitalizing on them. In Fall River, for example, the Bristol County Development Council tailors tours to a group's specific product interests and price range. It sets up an itinerary of off-price stores to visit, arranges low-cost lunches, and forewarns the stores about how many people to expect. Even after the buses pull away for the day, the council keeps the groups informed of sales coming throughout the year with free newsletters.
Even getting to outlet centers can be inexpensive and easy. Ms. Ellis, who schedules tours for her seminars on factory-outlet shopping, says the trip should not cost over $25 per person. ''And if a person can't save $25 during the day,'' she says, ''she doesn't know what she's doing.''
Bargain hunting, say off-price retailers, is the wave of the future. It has gained acceptance among the fashion-conscious, says Ms. Ellis. ''It's a matter of being proud of those [shopping] skills - and it's a way for them to win, to beat the system. Buying brand names at half price give them a victory.''
A survey taken by Ms. Bird of those who bought her local factory outlet guides confirms that fact. Even four years ago, when the survey was taken, the average customer's salary level was about $30,000 a year. ''Actually, I was disappointed that the more highly-educated and wealthier people were the ones buying the directories,'' she says. ''I was hoping they would reach those at lower incomes, who probably need them more.''
Sales volume in off-price stores is about 15 percent a year, double that of full-price retail stores, according to Jerome H. Buff, first vice-president at Smith Barney, Harris Upham & Company, a brokerage firm. But established, upscale department stores don't seem worried.
''The customer is becoming educated, and knows that she's looking for one thing - quality and service - at Saks, and another - price - at the factory outlet,'' says a spokeswoman at Saks Fifth Avenue. Advice from pro shopper
The quintessential shopper, Jean Bird, author of seven ''Factory Outlet Shopping Guides,'' claims factory outlets and off-price stores are the only places to shop. Already finished with most of her Christmas shopping, she has spent $400 - about half of what she would have spent in department stores, she says. But ''you have to go into outlets with your eyes wide open,'' advises Ms. Bird. ''If the merchandise doesn't fit or falls apart when you get it home, it's not a bargain, no matter what you paid for it.''
Here are some tips for getting good buys without making mistakes.
* Buy at the end of the season.
* If you are buying for someone else, take a tape measure to get the exact sizes and seam lengths you need. Sizes vary between manufacturers. Much of the time you can't take merchandise back if it doesn't fit.
* Be open minded. Don't go to an outlet looking for a particular dress or shirt.
* Don't sell full-price stores short. Their sale prices often are competitive with the discounts at off-price stores.
* If you see something you like, buy it. It may be gone tomorrow.
* Look for flaws. While most off-price stores mark the tag or pull off the label if the item is irregular, you cannot depend on that.
* Bring cash. Many off-price stores do not accept credit cards.
* Avoid shopping at popular outlet centers, such as Reading, Pa., on Saturdays. If you must go on Saturday, go early in the morning.
* If you are a woman who is modest, wear a leotard. Many outlets have one large community dressing room, or worse - as in Filene's Basement Store- no dressing rooms at all.