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3 Ways to Save More at Outlets This Holiday Season

By Lifestyle and Budget Consumer Reports

Naturally you'd like to save a bunch on your holiday shopping. Traveling to your nearest outlet mall could be the answer. But outlets can cause even the most disciplined shopper to overspend, especially around the holidays.

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The main draw, of course, is that everything is on sale, and savings are even better around the holidays. Typical discounts can be anywhere from 25 to 65 percent; the average savings is 38 percent, according to Value Retail News, an industry publication.
 
But don't assume every sweater, pair of slacks, or kitchen appliance is a steal. We shopped the outlets recently, and found significant savings on many items. But a few items we bought were actually cheaper in regular retail stores. To get the deepest discounts:

The Inside Dope on Outlet Malls reveals the items that were cheaper at regular retail stores. Subscribers can check out our Ratings of outlet stores. Plus use these shopping apps to save even more on your holiday gifts.

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Go deep

Like regular stores, the biggest markdown on goods can generally be found on sale racks in the back of outlets. But before you buy, make sure the item you're interested in is really a good deal. We found some outlet goods were actually cheaper in regular stores. Use these shopping apps to scout for cheaper deals elsewhere.

But since many items (like a lot of outlet clothing) are made specifically for outlet malls, you won't be able to compare prices on all the goods. Manufacturers usually tweak some construction details on their retail goods (using less expensive buttons, fewer stitches per square inch, thinner materials, etc.) to sell them for less at outlets.
 
The good news: We found very few seconds, irregulars, or returned items when we shopped outlet malls recently. But inspect goods carefully before you head to the register anyway, just in case.
 

Time it right

Getting to an outlet mall can be a long trip. In Consumer Reports' recent survey of 15,789 readers who shopped at outlets, 34 percent traveled more than 50 miles from their home; one in five had to go more than 100 miles.

If possible, grab a to-go coffee and hit the road early. Crowds are smaller and merchandise hasn't been picked over in the morning. Most shoppers go to outlets between noon and 3 p.m. If you're not a morning person, try dinnertime.

And shop midweek if you can. Tuesday to Thursday is usually quietest time at outlets. Weekends are chaotic, especially around any holiday.

But you can head to the outlets in November and December and stay sane if you do some advance reconnaissance. We shopped at an outlet mall Labor Day weekend, but we checked the website the night before to find out the mall hours, and studied its map to find our best parking area. We arrived right as the mall opened the next day, got a great parking spot, and we able to shop and return an item before the crowds (and checkout lines) became overwhelming.

Be loyal

See if the malls near you have rewards programs. You can get exclusive, personalized coupons and sale offers. For example, Tanger, which operates 40 malls nationwide, offers free coupon books that you can access on your mobile device, free gift cards once you hit certain spending levels, exclusive Web offers, and more for a one-time $10 fee.

While you’re on the website, look for printable coupons. Some centers charge a fee for a book of coupons on-site, but you can generally download it free if you've signed up for the rewards program.

For more shopping tips and to see the items that we found were worth a trip to the outlets–and those that weren't– read "The Inside Dope on Outlet Malls."

—Mandy Walker (@MandyWalker on Twitter)

Copyright © 2005-2014 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission. Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this site.