For good buys, elbow your way through a factory outlet

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

An elderly woman peers into the hallway of Parker's Candies Factory Outlet in Fall River, Mass., which has just closed for the day. Six other women, with packages strewn on the ground next to them, crane to see over her shoulder.

''There are seven grown women out here crying,'' calls the first. ''Won't you open up for us?''

No, they won't. Unlike many retail stores these days, Parker's isn't worried about sales. On a busy Saturday like this one in late October, about 4,000 people pass through the store, estimates store manager David Sinclair.

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Parker's isn't in the middle of a shopping mall. It sits at the end of a small road, along with some other outlets. Its location would seem to indicate that a factory outlet doesn't have to seek out shoppers; with these prices, shoppers will come to it.

And the shoppers are coming - by the busload, in fact. According to Anna Duphiney at the Bristol County Development Council, as many as 60 bus tours come to the Fall River-New Bedford area on a Saturday during the peak season between October and Christmas.

In Reading, Pa., where over 100 factory outlets and ''off-price'' retailers have set up shop next to each other, busloads come by the hundreds. ''It's getting too commercial in Reading,'' notes Jean Bird, author of seven factory outlet guides covering Maine to South Carolina. ''People line up to get into stores, and then line up to get out of them.''

It's normal to find apparel and soft goods (towels, sheets, etc.) in a factory outlet or off-price store at 30 percent to 70 percent off the usual retail price. This reporter nearly bought a $140 coat at Lord & Taylor department store which sold for $69 at Milltowne Factory Outlet in Fall River. Fieldcrest blankets, about $50 retail, were $24.99. Men's Van Heusen dress shirts were being snapped up for $16.99, about a 33 percent savings. And hard leather Renwick briefcases, retailing at $210, could be had for $139.

On the other side of town, at Marvel Factory Outlet, racks of Villager wool skirts normally $66 enticed bargain-hunters with a $29 price tag. Jean Phillippe blouses, which were polyester but looked like silk, flaunted a $12 tag. In a typical city department store they retail at $50. But let the buyer beware: there are no exchanges or returns.

And next door to Marvel, at Kidswear Factory Outlet, mothers rummaged one-handed (with a child in the other) through the 79-cent Carter's undershirts ($2 retail) and $3.49 thermal underwear ($7 retail). One woman, asked why she shopped at Kidswear, replied ''Are you kidding? Kids grow like weeds. Buy them a pair of pants, and they're popping the seams a month later.''

Many stores claim to sell off-price or discount merchandise, but there are subtle distinctions that could make a difference in quality and price of the merchandise.

At a bona fide factory outlet, the customer buys directly from the manufacturer, which wants to unload its overruns or irregular goods. Often located at or near the factory, such stores don't pay high shopping-mall rents, nor the interior-decorating fees. ''We're not paying for the curtains and the wall-to-wall carpeting, or for the store planners and advertising executives . . . ,'' says one outlet manager.

In addition, the range of products is usually limited - about all you can get at a Bass shoe outlet store in Brunswick, Maine, is shoes; or underwear at Carter's Underwear outlet in Needham, Mass. It's generally not a one-stop affair , with designer jeans next to Hartman luggage next to microwave ovens.

But the discount often ranges from 40-70 percent because there is no middleman. And you are likely to get current styles, or even next season's styles, at half the retail price.

The half-brother to factory outlets are ''outlet concept stores,'' which buy from many manufacturers. These stores buy samples, overruns, end-of-season goods , and irregulars from manufacturers at below wholesale prices, so they can sell at a 25-60 percent discount. While a shopper may not, on average, find as large a discount at these stores as at factory outlets, she or he will have a wider selection. Some of the larger outlet concept stores include T.H. Mandy (owned by US Shoe), J. Brannam (F.W. Woolworth Company), Marshall's (Melville), Loehmans, and T. J. Maxx (Zayre Corporation).

The third type of off-price store is the ''discounter.'' Like Mandy's and Marshall's, they buy from several types of manufacturers. But discounters, such as Cohoes Manufacturing, usually pay regular wholesale price, and take a low markup, undercutting department stores by about 20 percent. The two advantages over outlet concept stores are, first, a more complete selection in sizes, colors, etc.; and second, location - they are often closer to urban areas.

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.''

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.

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