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Tips for outlet savings
Ways to save money and time Our survey, hours of shopping, and examination of dozens of labels and garments reveal that great bargains, high-quality merchandise, a wide selection, and a pleasant experience are yours if you shop right. Here's how:

Time your visit. Crowds can be brutal on weekends. Midweek (Tuesday through Thursday) is usually quietest. Arrive as soon as the mall opens, when the merchandise is neatly arranged and sales clerks are perky, said one outlet center company executive. Dinnertime is another good time to beat the mobs. Avoid shopping between noon and 3 p.m. Save time by consulting a mall map first.

Catch the biggest sales. Outlets follow the same calendar as regular stores, offering especially sweet deals around Presidents' Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving (and the Friday after), and Christmas. Great deals can also be seasonal. In January, for instance, merchants need to clear out their inventories to make room for spring arrivals.

Use coupons. The major outlet developers have Web sites full of downloadable coupons for bonus discounts from selected stores for a limited time. You might also be able to sign up for e-mail alerts about sales at your favorite center. The sites for the three biggest developers are Premiumoutlets.com, Primeretail.com, and Tangeroutlet.com. For other outlet centers, try doing a Web search using the location--Reading, Pa., for example--and the word “outlets.” At many stores, you can sign up for discounts on your favorite brands.

Join a frequent-shopper program. By joining Prime's 1Club or Chelsea Premium Outlet's VIP Shopper Club, at their Web sites, you'll have access to exclusive sales, promotions, and special events. Members also can pick up coupon books at the mall's customer-service office. Clubs and coupons are usually free. Tanger imposes a one-time $10 membership fee and charges about $3 to $5 for a coupon book for nonmembers. Others might charge for a booklet if you show up at the office without a voucher. Be sure to make a printout from the Web site before you go.

Seek other discounts. AAA members, for instance, might qualify for another discount at participating stores. (They'll need to present their card to get the bonus.) Some centers also extend a 10 percent discount to shoppers older than 50 on a weekday, when crowds are smaller. At Chelsea Premium Outlets, Tuesday is “senior” discount day.

Look first at merchandise that came from regular stores, if possible. As we found, some goods made specifically for the outlets might be a notch inferior to regular-store products. Unfortunately, it's usually impossible to identify outlet-only merchandise by the label. The Gap, for instance, used to label its outlet line “Gap Factory Store”; now the labels say simply “Gap” (but you'll find three small squares under the logo on the sewn-in label on outlet exclusives).

The only easily identified for-outlet merchandise we saw came from L.L. Bean, marked “Factory Store,” and from Brooks Brothers, where such products carry the company's “346” label. Merchandise that migrated from the Brooks Brothers retailers bear a label with “Brooks Brothers” in script. Fortunately, sales clerks we queried were quite knowledgeable and open about their products' lineage. If you're unsure of the origin of the item you want, ask.

Consider irregulars. They are among the most deeply discounted goods. Many flaws are practically unnoticeable and have little bearing on longevity. Bring a magnifying glass to help you identify flaws. If you're not sure about a defect, ask a sales clerk to point it out.

Shop for out-of-season items. The back of the store is where merchants exile rock-bottom-priced items such as summer goods in the fall.

Understand return policies. Some outlets accept returns with no questions asked, with or without a receipt, regardless of when you bought the item. Others give store credit and adhere to a strict time limit. Without a receipt, you'll typically get a refund or credit for the lowest price the item sold for, not necessarily the amount you paid. Generally, you cannot return outlet merchandise to a full-priced store, and vice versa.

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