If you love shopping at outlet malls for great deals, you’ll really love online outlets. You can save big on many of your favorite brands — minus the schlep and the crowds. These discount websites don't always pop up in online searches, however, so you have to know where to look for them. Like physical outlets, online versions sell open-box, past-season and overstock items, and sometimes exclusive labels. In addition to the stores you'll commonly see at physical outlet malls — including Adidas, Chico’s, J. Crew, Lululemon, Saks and Zales — you can find outlets online for many retailers less likely to have a physical location near you, such as Bloomingdale’s, Best Buy and Wayfair. Even retailers that don’t have standalone outlet sites often feature substantial clearance sections with outlet-style discounts, such as Amazon, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Michael’s and Bass Pro Shops. Here are six tips for shopping smart and saving big at online outlets.
1. Know where to look
To find the online outlets of your favorite brands, simply do an online search for its name plus “outlet.” One great place on the web where you can find dozens of outlets is at the online version of mall chain Premium Outlets.
2. Double-check prices
The word "outlet" doesn't guarantee you're getting the lowest price, so check for even better deals with a more general search. For example, I spotted a Norelco hair trimmer at Best Buy’s outlet for $21 but a quick search turned up a price of $18 at Kohls.com.
3. Be alert to differences
Some outlet stores sell merchandise made specifically for the outlets. Tip-offs include the word “factory” and outlet-only labels. When I worked at Consumer Reports, the experts compared products from retail stores with outlet exclusives and found that the materials and workmanship weren’t the same but the outlet merchandise was still a good value.
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4. Check return policies
At both the J. Crew Factory and the regular J. Crew websites, returns cost $7.50. But not all discount sites share the same return policies as their retail siblings. For example, returns are free at Zappos.com but not at their 6pm.com outlet site. At AmericanFreight.com (this site merged with the old Sears Outlet) all sales are final. Also, while you can return online outlet merchandise to an outlet store, you typically can’t return it to the regular retail store.
5. Seek out discount codes
Sites like RetailMeNot.com and CouponCabin.com can help you nab additional discounts. When I checked in January, several offers for Saks Off 5th popped up, including $20 off any purchase when you sign up for the retailer’s newsletter, and 25 percent off any Gap Factory purchase. Download the browser extensions of these sites and the deals will pop up automatically.
6. Stock up!
Sometimes, you can find discontinued styles that you love at online outlets. When you do, grab them! Shopping expert Trae Bodge says she fell in love with a pair of Banana Republic pants that she found at a thrift shop and when she did a search online to get another pair, she found them at an online outlet. Score!
Recent deals on factory outlet websites
Cooklee Stand Mixer, 6.5 quart size, with attachments, Pearl Gray
- $190 at icooklee.com
- $119 at amazon.com/outlet
- Savings: $71 (37%)
- Pro tip: Being flexible on color can often save you money. Amazon sells the white and pink models of the same mixer for $170.
Kay Jewelers diamond stud earrings, 1/5 carat in 10-carat white gold
- $400 for a single pair, or $1,200 for three pairs, at kay.com
- $300 for a set of three pairs at kayoutlet.com
- Savings: $100 vs. a single pair (25%) or $900 vs. 3 pairs (75%)
- Pro tip: Bargain shopping by price alone can lead you to lower quality. In this case, the outlet- and retail-site diamonds are almost identical.
Kenneth Cole cap-toe oxford shoes for men
- $140 for Tully Cap Toe oxfords at kennethcole.com
- $44 for Half Time oxfords at 6pm.com
- Savings: $96 (69%)
- Pro tip: If you find an item you want, look for a similar item on outlet sites. While sizes were limited at 6pm, the styles look very similar and the savings are huge.
Lisa Lee Freeman, a consumer and shopping expert, was founder and editor in chief of ShopSmart magazine from Consumer Reports.