Outlet malls: Not what they used to be
If you think it's a top-quality, brand-name product at a deep discount, think again.
Ten years ago, that may have been true. But most brands now sell lesser-quality merchandise made just for their outlets.
Some consumer advocates liken it to a bait-and-switch.
"It's an abuse of the brand. Most consumers don't realize what they're getting," said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog.
"Sometimes (retailers) tweak production of the items so they're slightly different in terms of quality, but it's acceptable. I don't think this is a dirty little secret of the outlet industry," said Coleen Conklin, senior vice president of marketing at Premium Outlets, a division of Simon Property Group.
Upscale fashion icons, including Coach and Juicy Couture, maintain a separate product line for their outlet stores, representatives for the brands said. Clothing retailer Gap Inc., which owns Banana Republic, also manufactures products exclusively for its outlets or "factory stores."
Several outlet store managers said the difference between outlet and retail products can be so subtle that they are rarely discernible to the everyday shopper.
To be sure, outlets are big business. Since 2006, 39 outlet centers have opened, compared with only one regional mall, according to Value Retail News, the outlet industry's trade publication.
But their popularity has exploded; there are now more than 300 of them in the United States.
But as the industry grew, the concept evolved and outlets became a distribution channel in their own right. The tough economic times in the past five years accelerated the process.
Separate product lines allow brands to appeal to shoppers with different priorities.