Do you really get better bargains at outlet malls?

Outlet malls are big business and became even bigger during the recession.

During the past eight years, 50 new outlet centers have been built nationwide, compared to only three retail malls. Sales grew 41 percent at outlet malls from 2006 to 2012 compared to 9 percent at retail malls, according to statistics by Consumer Reports magazine.

But do outlet centers really give shoppers the bargains they think they are getting?

Consumer Reports surveyed nearly 16,000 readers about their experiences at outlet centers, as well as did some of its own comparison shopping.

The findings? Two out of three shoppers are completely or very satisfied with their purchases.

Research found that 64 percent of stores visited had greater value than retail stores, with 34 percent of them much lower than retail stores. The stores with the highest marks for most savings compared to retail were: Bon Worth, L.L. Bean, Haggar, Oshkosh B’gosh and Izod.

The one-third of shoppers who were less satisfied cited the following issues:

  • Eight percent said there was a poor selection of styles, sizes and colors.
  • Six percent complained that quality wasn’t as good as expected.
  • Some said that there were stores at the mall that were actually retail stores. (The industry definition of outlet mall is that most stores in the mall are outlets.)

There are fewer seconds in outlet malls today than there were in the past. Most products are now manufactured overseas and damaged items are weeded out.

Many items today are produced specifically for outlet stores. They may look similar, but have fewer detailed finishes. For instance, Consumer Reports said a Coach bag purchased at an outlet center didn’t have the embossed leather, as comfortable a handle or a curved zipper. But a textile expert said the bag was well made and styled true to the brand quality.

Consumer Reports offers the following tips to help get the best prices at outlet centers:

  • Find coupons. Most centers have coupons or books of coupons that can be downloaded.
  • Sign up for the rewards program. You can get exclusive, personalized coupons, sales alerts and other shopping aids.
  • Use apps. Sometimes better deals are advertised through apps at individual stores as well as at the outlet mall itself.
  • Look for other discounts. Some stores also offer discounts to AARP, military, college students or other groups.
  • Time it right. Price cutting takes place at traditional sales times, including Black Friday. Malls are less crowded Tuesday through Thursday, and merchandise is less picked-over early in the day.
  • Plan your trip. Most outlet centers are 400,000 feet or more, so download a map to plan your shopping.
  • Know the return policy. Regular retailers typically don’t take returns from outlet stores, and outlets may not take returns from online purchases.

Outlet centers tend to be located away from other retail centers, so the price of gas is another consideration. One-third of outlet malls where readers shopped were 50 miles or more from their homes, and one in five was at least 100 miles away.

In the future, look for more outlet malls to add upscale restaurants, movie theaters and art and music festivals to attract shoppers.