Give Me Back My Five Bucks

The tricky ways outlet malls get you to spend money

In about a month, I’ll be heading across the border to Bellingham, where my sister and I plan on doing some shopping. Part of it is to pick up last-minute Christmas presents, but it’s also going to be a trip for the both of us to refresh our wardrobes. Plus, we haven’t seen each other since April – when we did a 10-day trip across northern Italy.

Up until last summer, I used to love shopping at outlet malls. A few times a year, my friends and I would head across the border from Vancouver into Washington state to go shopping at Target, as well as the Tulalip Premium Outlet shopping centre. And whenever we were on vacation, one of the first things we looked up was where the closest mall or outlet was.

With coupons in hand my friends and I could spend all day wandering the stores, looking for the best deals we could find. But now that I’ve been doing most of my shopping online, I’m left wondering whether outlet malls are still all they’re cracked up to be.

Here are some reasons to be cautious the next time you go outlet mall shopping:

They’re almost always inconveniently located

There’s a reason you always seem to have to drive to an outlet mall. The stores enjoy lower rent and more space by being farther away from a big city, that’s true. But the real reason why they’re always so far away is because customers seem to spend more when they have to invest time and energy getting there. Because it took at least a few hours for me to get across the border and drive to Tulalip, it made me feel like I always needed to buy at least a few things to justify my trip.

Is the quality really high?

A long time ago, outlet stores sold discounted, overstocked, or irregular items. Now a lot of merchandise is created specifically for selling through a retailer’s outlet stores. I found this to be true of stores like the Gap and Banana Republic.

Made-for-outlet products aren’t always the same quality as the items sold in regular stores. It starts with the details – the quality of buttons, zippers, and stitching. Also, instead of a 100% cashmere sweater, you might end up buying a sweater with 25% cashmere instead.

The big markdowns could be a lie

Big signs advertising “75% off!” or “buy one, get two free!” are common at outlet malls, and it’s what creates the illusion of scoring a great bargain. But what’s listed as the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) might be misleading because it may have never sold for that amount anywhere. There’s no reason to believe that a $200 item that has been discounted to $40 is even worth the marked down price.

Not everything is on sale

Many outlet stores also carry full-priced merchandise right alongside sales items. Last summer, I went into the Under Armour store at the outlet mall, intended on buying running socks and compression shorts. I was surprised to see that both items were exactly the same price as in a regular store. Because I had done my research and knew what the regular price was for both these items, I left empty-handed and ended up buying what I needed at a discount on eBay instead.

Is the coupon book worth it?

Some outlet malls offer coupon books in order to save even more at select stores. At the Premium Outlets in Tulalip, these coupon books cost $5 each at the customer service desk. The coupons can offer up to 20% off, but will often require a minimum purchase amount before you can use it. If you have a long shopping list, it could be worth it. Otherwise it might just force you to spend more just to get the savings – which doesn’t really make sense.

If you are able to plan ahead of time, try looking on the outlet website for ways to score the coupon book for free. The Premium Outlets website offers the coupon book for free when you register online. You can also receive coupons for additional savings at select stores, which can add up to big savings when you stack it with your coupon book discounts.

Pay close attention at the cash register

I can’t count the number of times an item at an outlet store has rung up wrong, or the discount wasn’t applied correctly. Make sure to scrutinize every price at the time of purchase. I even pull out my iPhone calculator to check it thoroughly before I move onto the next store. Nothing’s worse than getting home after a long day of shopping, and realizing you were overcharged – with the outlet mall a 1 or 2 hour drive away.

Do you shop at outlet malls?

Author: Krystal Yee

I’m a personal finance blogger and marketing professional based in Vancouver. I’m a former Toronto Star (Moneyville) columnist, author of The Beginner’s Guide to Saving and Investing, and co-founder of the Canadian Personal Finance Conference. When I’m not working, you can usually find me running, climbing, playing field hockey, or plotting my next adventure.


  1. sp says:

    I almost never do. At BR, they put 3 dots on the tag of ‘made for outlet’ items. they are sneaky, because a lot of the stuff has very similar styles as the in store, but they are different materials/quality.

    I usually find some cute things, but they turn out to be no cheaper than I’d pay at a normal store.

    I also have little patience for shopping, and outlet malls are nuts! :)

    • Krystal Yee says:

      Yeah, outlet malls are crazy… but maybe I’m the crazy one for wanting to go to one in mid-December! :) I absolutely hate shopping (which is why I mostly online shop these days), but I find outlet malls (and shopping in the USA in general) to be much cheaper than buying from any store in Canada.

  2. Outlets are too much at once for me. Agree on all your points, one time I went to this huge outlet mall in my area and felt disappointed that I didn’t leave with something. And yeah stores like BR and JCrew make lower quality items for their outlet stores. I think only items worth buying at outlets are higher end, like Gucci.

  3. CC says:

    Um – you *totally* just ripped this off of a recent Moneysense magazine article. You just paraphrased it.

Leave a Reply

Buy the Book!

A beginner's guide for Canadians looking to get their financial life in order. Get great info on budgeting and saving, RRSP's and pensions, investing types, insurance, and where to go for additional resources.

Recent Tweets


  • Yep 2017 was a pretty good year! 1 Hiked thehellip
  • Dreaming about warmer days and incredible hikes like this onehellip
  • Foggy day down by the river NewWest
  • Games and pizza just might be the perfect way tohellip
  • OMG a million times yes! xoxo
  • Not a bad place to spend the last 5 days!hellip
  • Gorgeous day for snowshoeing!
  • Current mood

© 2018. Give Me Back My Five Bucks. All rights reserved. Powered by WordPress & Designed by Mike Smith