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The Federal Trade Commission, backed by all the power and majesty of the United States Federal Government, has released for public consumption an informative document titled “Outlet Shopping: getting your money's worth.”

It isn't a bad piece except it neglected the single most important outlet-shopping money-saving tip of all: “Invent a time machine and travel back maybe 20 years or so, when 'outlet stores' were still relatively rare businesses rather than national-chain tourist traps.”

I exaggerate, of course; traveling back in time is impossible. But it's no joke that outlet stores were better in the Good Old Days. The FTC's consumer blogger alluded to the reason why when she said, “Even though I write about consumer issues every day, I have to admit that I was clueless that much of the merchandise sold at outlet stores is manufactured exclusively for them, and may be of lesser quality than the merchandise sold at non-outlet retail locations.”

By contrast: as a longtime thrift shopper, I knew that long before I started writing about consumer issues every day. Since most of my clothes were bought secondhand, the labels in my wardrobe run the gamut from “ludicrously overpriced designer brands” to “average mainstream stuff” and everything in between.

In the back of my closet hang a few older pieces with labels from a company I won't mention by name, since I'm not in the habit of making endorsements, but it's a geopolitical reference to a corrupt form of fruit-based government I'll call “Kumquat Oligarchy.”

Anyway, in grad school I often wore Kumquat Oligarchy clothes, because my local thrift shops just happened to sell lots of KO donations in my size. Then the labels started changing. It's been years since I personally recall making a Kumquat Oligarchy thrift-shop purchase — but I do have a few pullover tops whose labels read “Kumquat Oligarchy Outlet Store” and, yeah: even taking secondhand wear and tear into consideration, the KO outlet clothes just don't have the same quality as the old KO Classic pieces had. Nor is Kumquat Oligarchy the only company to do this — my dresser drawers are full of clothes whose labels read “[More-expensive-than-average clothing brand] Outlet Store.”

A place to unload

In the Good Old Days, you'd never see specific “outlet store” labels; if a manufacturer did run its own brand-specific outlet store, it was simply a place to unload stock it couldn't sell elsewhere, either due to a manufacturing flaw, because the item's discontinued or because the company simply produced more than its retail middlemen could sell.

Now manufacturers are more likely to view outlet stores as the junior-varsity version of their regular offerings. Or, as the FTC blogger put it: “The industry says it’s responding to customer demand for merchandise that’s similar to what’s sold in the regular retail stores, but at a lower price point.”

Which is a diplomatic way of saying they manufacture cheaper knock-offs of the more expensive originals. The FTC even offers examples of how that's done: “plastic might replace leather trim on a jacket, or a t-shirt may have less stitching and a lighter weight fabric.”

If you want to do true “outlet shopping” as was practiced a generation or so ago, your best bet is to ignore the outlet-mall chains entirely and instead look for discount/overstock stores, which tend to have different names in different regions of the country: depending where you live, you might look for “job lot,” “odd lot,” “overstock,” “bargain outlet” or “markdown” stores. (This list is not remotely meant to be all-inclusive.)

Such stores usually still have a business model similar to what outlet stores used to be, selling the discontinued, imperfect or overstock items which manufacturers can't or won't sell in regular retail stores.

However, whether you shop at a job lot or a modern chain “outlet mall” it's still worth keeping the FTC blogger's advice in mind: “It pays to be familiar with the retail prices of items you want to buy so you'll know whether you're really getting a bargain.”

In other words: just because a store has words like “outlet” or “bargain” in its name, that's still no guarantee it actually offers the best price.

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