Can you really bag a bargain at Outlet Stores?

Published by Sue Hayward on 15 March 2019.
Last updated on 14 March 2019

Discount villages and online outlet stores can appear a shoppers’ paradise, with prices slashed on high street and designer items. But are the goods you buy worth their cheaper price tag or is all not as it seems? Moneywise investigates

While many high streets shops are struggling to keep afloat, outlet shopping appears increasingly popular, with at least three more locations planned for 2020. 

But what are you buying when you shop at outlets, both online and in store? Are you really getting items that others pay considerably more for or are you buying the dregs that no one wants or products that were never even on the high street? 

What do outlets stock?

Clothes, homeware, gadgets and electricals are just some of the items being sold off in these places, with eye-catching discounts of up to 75%. But what do you get for your money?

“Typical outlet stock will be a combination of last season, returns and seconds as well as production overruns, experimental lines and some items that are ‘made for outlet’,” says Ken Gunn, managing director of property at retail strategy consultancy Pragma, who has worked on outlet centres including Gunwharf Quays in Portsmouth, Clarks Village in Somerset and Cheshire Oaks in Ellesmere Port.

And with online outlets, items may be a mix of both new and clearance products including refurbished, returns, or seconds.

Clarks Village in Somerset claims to be the UK's first outlet shopping centre

Can you pick up a bargain?

How much you can save depends on the brand, but outlet shops, or the shopping villages or centres in which many are housed, typically claim discounts of ‘up to’ anything between 50% and 75%.

While this can sound enticing, remember stock is usually last season, so you are unlikely to find something you spotted on the high street sitting on the outlet shelves a month later. “There is so much discounting on the high street right now that it can make outlet discounts look marginal,” says Clare Bailey, independent retail expert at Retailchampion.co.uk,“so you may not get as much value from the outlet stores”.

Natalie Berg, a retail analyst and founder of NBK Retail, a retail consultancy that looks at changing shopping habits and future retail trends, agrees. “The shine has worn off due to constant discounting on the high street,” she says.

“If shoppers can get 20% to 30% off the entire season’s stock, why trek to an outlet mall where the discounts will be similar but on last season’s inventory?”

However, when it comes to luxury brands, outlets can be a way of introducing the brand to a new market. “At the upper end of the market, people aren’t price sensitive, they’re not fussed about half-price stock and willing to pay top whack,” adds Ms Bailey. “It’s a different type of customer who wants to buy those items at a discount, as they’re not worried about something that’s last season.”

Forget voucher codes

This is one time when voucher codes don’t have any value so don’t even bother hunting for them.  Most vouchers can only be used on ‘full price’ merchandise, so you can’t get ‘double discount’ by using them alongside any special offers, promotions or deals.

However, some outlet locations may offer their own loyalty deals. For example, Springfields outlet, near Spalding in Lincolnshire, offers a free ‘VIP’ card with further discounts at around 40 stores.

Where do you find outlets?

Clarks Village in Street, Somerset claims to be the UK’s first outlet shopping centre, having been going for 25 years, and now boasts 90 outlet stores including many high street names such as Marks & Spencer, Next, Body Shop, White Stuff, Joules, Jack Wills, Hobbs and Gap.

Another big outlet centre is Gunwharf Quays in Portsmouth, which also features over 90 brands including Coach, Fossil, French Connection, Pandora and Molton Brown. And there are outlet ‘chains’ such as McArthurGlen, which has several sites across the UK including London, Cardiff, Manchester, Nottingham, Swindon and York. Its Cheshire Oaks site has more than 130 stores and houses a mix of high street names, such as Build-A-Bear and Paperchase, alongside luxury brands such as Mulberry and Burberry.

Other outlets, such as Bicester Village in Oxfordshire, have cornered the high-end market with the likes of Armani, Gucci, Montblanc and Kate Spade.

Livingston Designer Outlet is Scotland’s largest outlet mall and houses top-end brands including Antler, Barbour, Calvin Klein, Lacoste and Tommy Hilfiger along with high street names such as Phase Eight, Reiss, Hamleys, Marks & Spencer, Next, Body Shop and French Connection.

And the London Designer Outlet at Wembley Park houses more than 70 stores including Hamleys, Yankee Candle, Jack Wills and North Face.

Bicester Shopping Village in Oxfordshire

Brands for the outlet market

While the discounts offered sound tempting, you’re not necessarily comparing like for like with high-street stores. In some cases, as much as 50% of the merchandise on sale in outlet stores may be specifically made for the outlet according to Mr Gunn.

“These are sometimes labelled as ‘outlet exclusives’, but every brand is different, so the balance in store can range from 100% last season’s stock to 50% made for outlet.”

“Made for outlet isn’t always inferior quality and essentially lets consumers access aspirational brands at prices they can afford,” says Mr Gunn.

If it matters to you, you can always ask in store if the items on sale have previously been sold in stores or online or specifically made for the outlet market.

Online outlets

Many big-name retailers have online outlet stores, including Argos, Clarks, Debenhams, Currys PC World, Lakeland, and Tesco. These can be separate from their main websites or, in many cases, may be outlet stores on eBay. Some have online outlets even if they don’t have physical outlet locations.

Lakeland, for example, sells refurbished items at up to 50% off, along with a year’s guarantee, through its eBay outlet store. At the time of writing, a soup and milkshake blender (1.5 litre size) is on sale on its eBay outlet for £34.99, which is less than half the price it is currently selling for in its high street stores and on its website.

Some items sold through online outlets are listed as potentially having minor surface defects or not being in their original packaging. If you are buying for yourself you might not mind, but if you’re gifting check the description carefully if you don’t want to give something that is not in perfect condition.

Clarks has more than 50 outlet stores around the country as well an online outlet, which is separate from its standard website. Its outlet site promises at least 30% off, although the headline banner says ‘up to 60%’. However, during sale periods, you can buy current stock with up to 50% off through its standard website.

Joules also has an outlet store on eBay, but right now both its standard website along with its eBay outlet are currently advertising ‘up to 50%’ off, which doesn’t make the online outlet version look like a better deal.

If you prefer an online outlet selling multiple brands, you can sign up for free at BrandAlley.co.uk, which is a members-only designer discount site with up to 80% off around 500 brands.

Well-known brands include Michael Kors, Ted Baker, Gucci, Jimmy Choo, L’Occitane, Elemis, Diesel and Orla Kiely, covering fashion, beauty and home. We found Mulberry handbags with over 70% off and La Prairie luxury skincare at a 50% discount. BrandAlley charges a flat £5.95 delivery charge and £3.50 postage on returns.

Outlet store or online outlet?

It can be hard to compare prices for the same brand between its outlet store and its online outlet. “When it comes to pricing between the outlet stores and outlet websites, they are no better or worse”, says Ms Bailey.

In most cases, they are not likely to have exactly the same products in stock and even if they do, they may in different colours or designs so it is impossible to compare like for like. Sometimes online will have better offers, at others physical outlets – it tends to balance out.

Nike has over 130 outlet stores across Europe

Looking for a particular item?

If you are really serious about bargain hunting, you may have to put in some legwork, says Mr Gunn, as not all outlets have the same stock.

“Larger chains are more sophisticated. Nike for example, which has over 130 outlet stores across Europe, has a centralised distribution system that collects unsold stock, plans the correct inventory for a specific outlet centre and then resupplies the stores,” he explains.

This, he says, means “smart outlet shoppers will visit different outlet centres as the same brand can have different stock”. 

Check the returns policy

If you are buying from an outlet, it is worth checking its returns policy. In most cases, even if you are able to return unwanted items for a refund, you may have to be prepared to trek back to the same store you bought it from.

This is because most ‘outlet’ stores won’t let you return items to their high street counterpart. But buying online gives you more rights; as even with online outlet stores, you still have 14 days to return items and in many cases, you may even have longer.

Check delivery costs when buying online. Even after you factor this in, it is still likely to be cheaper than the cost of the petrol plus time to drive to an outlet centre, and, of course, no guarantee you’ll find the same thing on the shelves there anyway.

SUE HAYWARD is a personal finance journalist who writes for publications including The Guardian and LoveMoney.com

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McArthurGlen do not have a

McArthurGlen do not have a Cardiff outlet mall, the nearest is at Bridgend, about 30 miles away.