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Outlet Vs. Retail Shopping: Experts Compare, Contrast Quality & Price

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Are you really getting a bargain when go outlet shopping?

Experts revealed to KDKA some secrets to help you get the best deals possible.

First, we conducted an experiment, comparing merchandise and prices from the outlets to what we found at regular retail stores.

We bought a pair of pants at the Banana Republic Factory Store, a small purse from the Coach Factory Store, a dress from the J. Crew Factory Store and a pullover from the Old Navy Outlet.

Then we tried to buy similar items at traditional Banana Republic, Coach, J. Crew and Old Navy stores.

Where would we get a better deal? And where would we get better quality?

We asked fashion expert Annette Ishida to examine our buys. She's a graduate of the prestigious Parsons School of Design and was a designer for Calvin Klein and others.

Let's begin with those pants from the Banana Republic. The outlet pair cost $41.99, but the ones from the regular store are almost twice the price at $80.25.

Can our expert tell the difference?

"The fabric feels really nice on both of them," said Ishida as she begins to examine the two pants.

She examines the lining and finds the outlet pair is "coarser, you see the stitching."

The outlet pair also has a button, while the more expensive pair has a metal fastener.

She also notices a difference in the zippers. She says of the outlet pair: "Not that it's a bad zipper, but this (the regular store pair) is obviously a higher quality."

Ishida correctly guesses which pants came from which stores, and that brings us to the first thing we learned: "There are factory stores where they make things just for that store," said Point Park University Marketing Professor Elaine Luther.

She says shoppers often think outlets sell overstock or past season items from regular stores, but that's not always true anymore.

"What I don't think they understand is that they might not be buying the top-of-the-line products," said Luther.

For instance, Banana Republic and J. Crew Factory Stores only sell items made specifically for the outlets. Still stylish, say the experts, but made to be sold at a cheaper price.

You can tell from the labels. An outlet item at Banana Republic will have three diamonds on the label. A J. Crew Factory Store item will have two diamonds which brings us to the dresses we bought.

The one from the J. Crew outlet was $67.13. The only one remotely similar at the regular store was a $138.

"There are big differences. First and foremost, this is fully lined," said Ishida, holding the dress from the regular retail store.

She was able to tell which is which pretty quickly. However, she says she's impressed with the factory store dress.

Coach is an outlet that has a mixture of items. Some made specifically for the stores, others marked down from regular Coach stores.

The clerk at the Tanger Outlets Coach store in Washington County even showed KDKA which items were just in from the traditional coach store at Ross Park Mall.

We bought a purse made specifically for the outlet store for $41.34.

Then we bought a similar one at the regular Coach store for $69.50.

"Not so obvious," said Ishida as she examined the purses.

She notices the logos are different. The outlet store purse has a logo stamped into the leather, but the higher-end version has a shiny logo that looks like jewelry.

Ishida also sees differences in the leather and details with the strap. She correctly guesses which purse came from which store.

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You should also know not all stores at the outlets are actually outlets. For example, the H & M store at Tanger Outlets is just like a regular H & M store, according to the company's customer service line.

Consumer Reports says by industry definition, an outlet center is a shopping center where most of the individual tenants are owner-operated outlets.

Interestingly, we found the exact same pullover at the exact same price at an Old Navy Outlet and at a regular Old Navy store. That company has not responded to our request for more information about how its outlet locations work.

But our experts agree that in general outlets are way to get a trendy look, often for less.

"I like going to the outlet," said Ishida. "I like the fact that you can get that look at a price point."

However, if you're really after the very highest quality products marked-down, Luther believes the best thing to do is to go to a one-day sale at a department store and come armed with coupons.

And if you're ready to outlet shop, you should know both Tanger and Premium Outlets at Grove City have coupon books you can buy for $5.

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