The truth about outlet store designer 'bargains' | Daily Mail Online outlet ugg online
The truth about those outlet store designer 'bargains': Shoppers flock to out-of-town malls for huge discounts on top brands... but the products aren't all they seem
Half-price Armani suits, £1,400 alligator handbags for £320 and Dunhill blazers with £300 off... surely the things that shoppers’ dreams are made of?
Such bargains really do exist, and not only in the sales. Take a trip to almost any of the ‘outlet’ shopping centres popping up all over Britain and you’ll find offers to make you salivate.
These out-of-town malls were originally set up to get rid of last season’s stock (or even slightly damaged seconds) at huge price reductions - often over 60 per cent.
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Medium Travel Tote in brown Saffiano leather, £159, Michael Kors, Bicester Village.
Made in China, this has no dustbag or zip and a different, brasher logo on the front. Inside is a magnetic clasp to close the bag. The interior pockets and zip aren’t leather trimmed and the lining is brasher.
Medium Travel Tote in brown Saffiano leather, £240, Michael Kors, Selfridges, London.
Made in Vietnam, the outside has the usual ‘Michael Kors’ logo, buckles, a zip and MK charm. Inside are leather-trimmed pockets (one with a zip), double-stitching, classic lining and an integrated logo.
But if you think the discounts sound too good to be true, you may be right. A Mail investigation this week has uncovered something that will startle many shoppers: stores are manufacturing lines solely to be sold in outlet stores, and marking as ‘discounted’ stock items that have never been sold at full-price.
We went to Bicester Village in Oxfordshire which, with 130 designer stores, is the most successful outlet in the world. While the annual spend per square foot in a typical UK shopping centre is around £300, here it is nearer £2,000.
‘World-leading brands offer their authentic previous seasons’ collections with savings of up to 60 per cent, and sometimes more,’ promises Value Retail, the company operating the village.
Posing as a customer, I visited dozens of stores, quizzing staff about the origins of their stock.
While some, such as Dunhill and Armani, are clear that they only sell stock left over from their main stores, others admit they sell a mixture of last-season stock and stock made specially for the outlet.
Coach is a U.S. company selling high-end women’s clothing, handbags and accessories.
In Bicester, there’s a note pinned to the counter, barely glanced at by shoppers, that reads: ‘The product assortment in all Coach outlet stores is a mix of past seasons’ product from our Coach branded stores and new-season products made specifically for our Outlet stores.’
I ask about a trench coat that is discounted from £360 to £183.20 and am told it is made for the outlet. When I ask how it’s possible to tell the origin of one item from another, the woman tells me it’s ‘a secret’.
What’s more intriguing, however, is how Coach came up with the discount, given that the coat has never been sold in its London boutique.
A spokesman later tells me: ‘All products... either have been previously available for purchase at a higher price in other stores in our European network, or have been discounted with reference to a full retail price consistent with Coach’s other markets.’
In other words, the items may never be sold at full price: the brand simply decides how ‘discounted’ to label them.
When I subsequently visit Coach’s London store in Bond Street I find a similar trench coat on sale for £320. Both are made in China, but the London coat is a thicker cotton with a classy striped-ticking lining and better detailing: snazzy shoulder epaulettes and a throat latch to ward off the wind, both of which are missing on the outlet version.
At the luxury label Michael Kors outlet in Bicester, which is heaving with shoppers queuing five-deep at the tills, the situation is even more confusing. From the amount of business it appears to be doing, it’s difficult to imagine how excess stock could fill its shelves year round.
Essential Tall Uggs in grey, £160, UGG outlet, Bicester Village.
The sole, which appears to be a rubberised plastic, has a more prominent tread and the suede upper seems rougher - although that may be down to natural differences in the same material.
Classic Tall Uggs in grey, £190, UGG, Covent Garden.
The main difference is in the sole: this pair has soles made of lightweight, water-resistant and long-lasting EVA (Ethylene Vinyl Acetate) with a shallower tread.
That’s not to say that there aren’t offerings from last season: an alligator handbag, which was sold in main stores, is reduced from £1,390 to just £320.
But there are also other designs that, I’m told, have been made for the outlet.
‘Other bags here are not from the collection, but they are made in the same place and from the same leather,’ an assistant tells me.
When I ask how I can tell, she says the Michael Kors logo is printed differently, and the lining is different, too, with a circular design on the boutique bags, and square on the outlet ones.
I examine their ‘bag of the moment’, a Jet Set Medium Travel Tote, which I’m told has been made for the outlet. It gives an ‘original’ price of £240 (you can certainly buy a similar tote for this price in Selfridges) and a ‘reduced’ price of £159. A closer look at the tag inside displays the £240 figure as a ‘manufacturer-suggested retail price’.
When I contact Michael Kors’ head office, they say the information I have been given in Bicester is incorrect.
‘Michael Kors outlet stores do not offer at any time seconds, irregular or inferior quality merchandise,’ a spokesman tells me. ‘Our UK outlet products are either excess inventory from our full-price retail distribution or prior season designs.’
I ask for clarification. Why did Bicester staff say there were ‘outlet-only’ lines? Is the spokesman accepting they exist but implying they are manufactured from old designs? Despite several e-mails I receive no response.
The outlet bag is different to the more expensive Selfridges one: it doesn’t come with a dustbag, or zip across the top, and it feels stiffer. Instead of double, it has single-stitched seams and a brash MK logo on the front rather than ‘Michael Kors’ lettering.
Not that many people shopping at outlet stores seem to be questioning whether the bargains are quite as good as they seem.
But back home, or when they see the real McCoy in another store, it appears doubts do creep in. ‘I visit outlet stores quite a lot,’ says one message posted on a fashion website, ‘and you can tell the stuff made especially for the outlet as the quality is usually rubbish.’
‘Lots of outlet stores have racks and racks of stuff - it looks cheap and it is cheap,’ says another.
‘Made purely for the outlet store.’
Boyfriend jeans, £31.99, Gap, Swindon Designer Outlet.
Made in Bangladesh, this pair of jeans sports copper rivets that aren’t backed with stainless steel and has shallow pockets that are made of a cheap white cotton.
Full price: Sexy Boyfriend jeans, £44.95, Gap, Oxford Street.
Made of softer denim, these have stainless-steel backed rivets, neat seaming, the classic Gap labelling and soft herringbone-cotton pockets with the company’s water pollution policy printed on them.
Neither comment mentions which outlet village they’d been to. But none of the customers at the UGG outlet in Bicester seemed troubled.
A sales assistant tells me that they manufacture boots specially for their three UK outlet shops because their most popular designs - the Classics - never change and so could never be classed as ‘last season’.
Instead they produce a so-called Essentials range - boots with the same upper but a markedly different sole. At £160, these UGGs are £30 cheaper than the Classics.
While the full-price UGGs have a sole made from lightweight and hardwearing EVA (Ethylene Vinyl Acetate) the cheaper boot’s sole is made from what seems to be heavier rubberised plastic.
The boots aren’t marked as being discounted, but are cheaper than the Classics on sale elsewhere, which is something savvy shoppers here at Bicester demand.
‘We have so many people from China and Japan and they all come here to buy the Classics with a discount,’ she said. ‘But they can’t get them, so UGG thought, “Let’s just make a boot.” ’
She added that they always tell customers of the difference in case they try to exchange them in another store.
When I contacted them, UGG responded: ‘Our Essential range comprises of discontinued mainline styles that are made for outlets to offer customers a more diverse range of product and prices than found in our traditional stores.
‘These products are all still made to UGG Australia’s exacting quality standards.’
So why do successful companies, who usually trade on exclusivity, go to such lengths for outlet stores?
‘Originally the luxury brands were family-run companies that were small, niche companies for niche clientele, for the creme-de- la-creme, and they were really snobby,’ says Dana Thomas, author of Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Lustre.
Investigation: Tom Rawstorne, pictured, took retailers to task over the differences between outlet and High Street
‘But since these companies were mostly taken over by business tycoons who saw them as a good investment and a good way to make money, they came at it with a far more capitalist point of view where they said, “Let’s sell as much and make as much profit as we can.”
'They have seen these outlets do so much business that they have realised this could be a whole second tier of retailing.’
A spokesman for Bicester Village said: ‘All stores are required to display mission statements telling shoppers what the origins of the goods on sale are.
‘At Bicester Village 98 per cent of the goods on sale are last seasons’ offerings. They are excess product or new stock made from the same materials or that of equal quality.’
Of course, not all outlet shopping is as exclusive as Bicester. Swindon Designer Outlet is one of six villages from Kent to Cheshire operated by McArthurGlen. It boasts 80 brands, but they tend to be high-end High Street.
As in Bicester, it doesn’t take long to find stock that has been specially made for the outlets.
In Gap I spot a pair of ‘boyfriend’ jeans for sale at £31.99, described as ‘similar to style at Gap, £44.95.’
When I ask what this means, I’m told the jeans are made for the outlet but ‘should be’ the same quality as those in normal Gap stores.
‘The product that is sold at our Gap Outlet stores is specifically designed and produced for our outlet stores,’ a spokesman later confirmed, adding that shoppers can tell the difference from the tags - outlet ones have three square dots on them.
The outlet pair are indeed similar to the Sexy Boyfriend jeans for £44.95 on the High Street, but one notable difference is that their copper rivets aren’t stainless-steel backed, so may cause reactions or leave green marks on your skin.
At Ted Baker, a shop assistant tells me he ‘thinks’ the £35 cotton shirt I pick up (reduced from its RRP of £75) had been made for the outlet and that those that are have a number ‘4’ (for 2014) as the third digit in a four-character code.
An identical shirt I buy at full price from Ted Baker’s Regent Street store in London appears to be of similar quality with a few extra trimmings such as a silk hanging loop. Such minor discrepancies are neither here nor there, but again, it’s the lack of clarity that is a problem.
This is hardly helped by a Ted Baker spokesman who tells me: ‘Where necessary, and in order to ensure a rounded, complete package for our customers, we “top up” on a few bestselling lines from the previous year.
We do not “make” for outlets and all our products are made to the same standard as normally for the season.’
As for shirt seller Austin Reed, it sells previous season’s stock plus what it calls ‘opportunistic buys’. Apparently these are items snapped up from suppliers who have spare capacity or excess stock available.
So when it comes to outlet shopping, it pays to be aware. For that fantastic designer bargain you picked up might not be quite what it seems. And it may leave you feeling less than a victor in the shopping wars.
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