How good is the merchandise at outlet malls?

LOS ANGELES Outlet malls can be found all across the nation and no matter what part of the country you're in shoppers find them to be a slice of heaven.

Outlets can save you big money -- as much as 70 percent, according to Consumer Reports ShopSmart -- but how good is the merchandise?

To check quality, they compared outlet merchandise to similar items at designer retail stores.

"Some outlets carry the exact same items as regular retail stores, but others don't. The differences can be big or small," said Jody Rohlena, Consumer Reports ShopSmart.

ShopSmart compared prices of two outfits, one bought from retail stores and the other from merchandise specially made for the outlet stores. The retail outfit totaled $771, while the one from the outlet cost $312. The Banana Republic skirt cost $79 retail and $30 at the outlet.

"The outlet skirt has a bit of polyester, so it's machine washable, which is convenient. But the flagship skirt is less likely to pill and it has nicer lining," said Rohlena.

One J. Crew blouse retailed for $88, but at a similar blouse at the outlet was only $48.

"Both blouses are made of pure silk, but the edges of the ruffles on the outlet store blouse are more likely to fray," said Rohlena.

Outlet stores also cater to women who also love handbags. A Coach bags that normally retails for $448 was $130 at the outlet.

"The store bag has softer leather, softer lining, it's got more pockets and sturdier hardware," said Rohlena.

Consumer Reports ShopSmart says paying full price does have its benefits.

"If you're looking for something that's going to last through wear and tear, like a bag or shoes, you might want to spend more on a better-made item," said Rohlena. "But if you're going for price alone, the outlets almost always win."

Be aware, return policies at outlets can be stricter than retail stores, so you want to be sure to check the policy when shopping.

Another great way to save is to join the frequent-shopper programs available at many outlet stores. These programs offer coupons and give bonus savings on your birthday. Also go to the outlet mall office when you first arrive because many times they have free discount coupon books you can use at some of the stores.

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