Know the Deal: how to shop at an outlet store

Coach Weekender
This mustard Coach weekender has been on some grand adventures with me. When shopping for bags, look for labels with identification numbers to verify authenticity. Coincidentally, most of my outfit in this photo was purchased at an outlet mall. Shoes and shades, Cole Haan. Necklace, Kate Spade.

Everyone loves a good deal. Hence the appeal of the “outlet mall,” a phenomenon we fully exploit here in Central Florida. People traveling from all over the world work a trip to the outlet mall into their itinerary, and leave with enough merchandise to clothe a small country.

Many people think that just because they’re buying something at an outlet mall, it’s guaranteed to be “a deal” and less expensive than buying it at a regular store. We get caught up in the thrill of the score, and wind up going for broke (literally and figuratively) by the end of the day (c’mon—how many of us really need a fancy garlic peeler?).

Here are my tips for making sure that your next trip to the outlet mall produces items that will be workhorses in your wardrobe:

Have a list (at least a mental one) of what you’re looking for.

Not only do I like to have a general idea of what specific pieces I’m looking for, I like to map out my route to certain stores once I arrive. This ensures I visit the stores that are most likely to have what I need. Once I get everything I need, I can visit other stores for extra fun. That way, I stand a much better chance of coming home with pieces that fill in the gaps in my wardrobe.

Know what’s the real deal.

I’ve seen too many friends disappointed in their search for designer items (especially bags). It’s not impossible to score a good deal on a designer bag, but you need to know the hallmarks of that designer and the materials they use. Designers usually stamp each bag with an identification number and the particular bag style should be recognizable from brand marketing. Shoddy zippers and linings or off-kilter or oddly colored logos are usually a good sign that you might not be getting the real deal.

In addition, some designers put out diffusion lines that have a similar aesthetic to their main line, but sometimes sacrifice a bit of luxury in the manufacturing process. The leather might not be as buttery soft, the hardware might not be as hefty, or the stitching may not be quite so even. You can find incredibly fun diffusion line pieces, but I do caution against overpaying for a diffusion line piece (this is easy to do because many times, diffusion line pieces are sold side-by side with main line items in the outlet stores with little to no differentiation. I say again: Know your designer).

Michael Kors moto jacket
After searching for years for the perfect leather moto jacket, I finally happened upon this one at a Michael Kors outlet.

Know what’s a real deal.

This generally has to do with your style aesthetic. The expression “Know thyself” has never rung more true than when applied in a sartorial sense. Snagging a purple sweater for $10 is $10 wasted since I don’t wear purple. Conversely, I love moss green, so paying $35 for one in that color (I like a silk-cotton blend) is a much better deal for me.

Similarly, since I don’t really wear sneakers, the 2-for-1 sale going on at Adidas isn’t going to be the best use of my finances. But I love leopard, and the utter abandon with which I pair it with everything imaginable completely justifies picking up two pairs in differing heel heights (the men in my life may disagree, but I’m standing by this one).

I find that wardrobe demise does not sneak up on you through well-thought-out investment purchases, but by frittering away your budget on things that appear to be a good deal at the time (This t-shirt in every color because it’s only $12!).

These guidelines may not completely safeguard you against the odd errant purchase (Oh, like I’M the only one with pool slides in my closet?), but they should at least ensure that you make good use of most purchases from this weekend’s ventures.

Know what is important to you.

I almost can’t believe I’m saying this, but there will be times when quantity will be more important than quality (pregnancy reigns fresh in my mind; so do newly-minted college graduates entering the job market). But barring a few exceptions, I tend to look for a very few (thank you, Lilliputian closet) quality pieces over volume.

Is prestige or living on the edge of the fashion scene more important to you? Does your weekend wardrobe read “sporty” or “party”? Do you prefer frequent shopping fun or a few big trips a year? These are all things that will affect how and when you spend your clothing budget.

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