Shoppers plug-in to outlets

BARGAIN HUNTING SEASON

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The mobs of merry shoppers filling stores from now until Christmas prove that American's love to spend.

But the fact that more and more are buying from factory-outlet stores - both today and after the holiday frenzy subsides - shows that buyers use at least some judgment and restraint.

Consumer Reports magazine estimates that last year some 55 million Americans trekked 200 miles or more for a round trip visit to outlet stores in places like Boaz, Ala.; Lancaster, Pa.; Page, Ariz.; Sunrise, Fla.; and even glitzy Las Vegas, Nev.

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That adds up to a bona fide movement.

But that doesn't mean outlet prices can't be beaten. Caveat emptor - let the buyer beware - still applies to those who take daytrips to the big, regional outlet centers.

Bethany Pierson of Boston is one buyer on such a mission. She estimates she saved about 50 percent off retail rates by hitting the outlet district in Kittery, Maine.

"I'm moving to a new apartment, and I just bought a lot of stuff for my kitchen," beams the Boston resident between full-laden shopping bags.

Experts agree with Ms. Pierson that prices at outlet stores generally beat those found in catalogs, department stores, national chains, or downtown specialty boutiques.

"There absolutely are bargains to be found at outlet centers, because everything is on sale every day, all the time," attests Linda Humphers, editor of Value Retail News in Largo, Fla.

Retailers peg their average outlet-store markdown at 40 percent, she reports.

But careful shoppers can find some items priced more cheaply in their local malls, says Frances Smith, executive director of Consumer Alert, a non-profit agency based in Washington, D.C.

"Retailers now run so many sales that sometimes you can get a better deal with marked-down merchandise from a standard store," she cautions.

A big attraction of outlet centers, she says, is their high concentration of discounted merchandise from many manufacturers, in one location.

But Ms. Smith advises people "not to go to an outlet expecting everything to be a bargain." It's best to comparison shop, she notes.

For instance, before traveling to, say, a Dansk outlet to pick up a pottery piece to complete your set, pop into a regular retail store to check prices.

Another important key to getting the most out of outlet shopping is realizing what outlet stores are.

Traditional retailers buy merchandise from manufacturers and resell it to consumers.

Outlets, owned by the manufacturers, bypass independent retailers and sell direct.

But the discounts don't come just by cutting out middlemen. Generally, manufacturers use outlets to peddle goods that other retailers won't take.

Thus, in many cases, outlets are a way to move unwanted merchandise. That's why it gets priced below recommended retail levels.

Outlets also carry overstocked items, "irregular" goods that failed factory inspection, and returns.

"That means you have to examine the merchandise more carefully," says Smith of Consumer Alert.

Another warning from shopping advisers: Check the outlet's refund and return policies. Often they're less accommodating than regular stores.

Some may accept returned items for store credit only, not a cash refund. Others carry "rock-bottom" final sale items that can't be returned on any terms.

"Although the stores look very nice, it's still a liquidation channel," reminds Ms. Humphers of Value Retail News. "They want to get rid of things."

For those traveling long distances to outlet centers - turning outlet shopping into excursion shopping - another key to wise buying is to keep yourself from getting carried away.

"The real problem is that many people are impulse buyers: They buy more than what they want or need," says Frances West, president of the Better Business Bureau of Delaware, in Wilmington.

"You have to go with a list - and a budget. If you know what you want, and you know what you're willing to spend, you won't be disappointed."

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