This week I ventured to Rosemont, Illinois to conduct some end-of-season-sale reconnaissance at the 6 month-old Fashion Outlets of Chicago.
When I worked in corporate buying for a large women’s apparel retailer, mall-sleuthing was a requisite part of the job. We had to keep tabs on our competition. Once, I even got thrown out of an American Eagle for taking a picture of their denim fixture – but that’s neither here nor there. This time around, I’m on the side of the people. I’m working for you, not the man. I showed up to sleuth for deals and I can report back that the deals are good. Especially good. Here’s why.
Nationally, there was a significant and unexpected drop-off in January sales vs. holiday sales this year, a decline that has been attributed mainly to the severe winter weather in most parts of the country throughout 2014. This means stores are heavy with winter inventory (coats, boots, sweaters) while they are simultaneously receiving spring collections.
As persistent winter weather continues to disrupt shoppers from getting out to stores and renders spring purchases especially impractical, it’s the perfect storm (wink wink!) for determined bargain hunters. In full-price stores, retailers have to offer end-of-season discounts to entice you to help them clear through their inventory glut; an outlet is the last stop on the train for excess product so they have to offer even deeper discounts.
Here’s just a handful of the deals I spotted on my intelligence-gathering mission:
- At Off Saks, there was a wall of clearance shoes with an accompanying sign that read “Buy 1 Get 2 Free”.
- At Theory, a price-slashed “Last Chance” wall of coats was dense with full size runs. Then, depending on how much you spend, a sliding scale percentage discount is applied.
- At J. Crew the whole store felt on sale. I picked up layering tanks and tees which were $19.50 plus 60% off.
- My shopping partner put on hold a pretty silk blouse for “$60-something, down from $600-something” at Giorgio Armani, before opting to spend her budget on a couple of pairs of J. Brand jeans, under $100 each, at one of the anchor department stores.
- $350 boots came to under $100 at Cole Haan.
- Cashmere sweaters at Vince were served up with double-dip discounts.
In the past, luxury brands would ship excess current or left-over last season product to a warehouse to sit it out for a few seasons before sending it to the outlet. They did this so customers would not outsmart full-price by waiting until the end of the season to buy what they wanted for much less at an outlet. That strategy is intended to preserve two distinct customer bases. Yet, I noticed that the luxury product at the outlets was much more recent than I would have expected, a shift that reflects their eagerness to get excess inventory off the books – which creates a favorable environment for consumers. I posed this observation to the mall’s marketing director, Jim Anderson, and he agreed with me that the time window for full-price luxury to reach the outlet appears to have shortened. He also mentioned that his team is increasingly seeing customers who do a preliminary browse on Michigan Avenue and Oak street, and then come to the outlets to spend.
A conversation about end of season sale isn’t complete without mentioning the online off-price shopping destination, flash sites like Gilt. Perhaps the pros and cons of an outlet vs. a flash sale site warrants a lengthier discussion, but my view is that at the outlets as opposed to online, retailers can get rid of goods at red-pen prices without diluting their brand identity. As a former buyer for a company with a big outlet business, I know the behind the scenes control that buyers have over pricing. The directives to the outlet stores to turn on or off or double-up or deepen promotions are levers that corporate buyers pull at their discretion in response to inventory levels – and since inventories are higher this year, expect levering.
I asked Mr. Anderson what the best times during the year are to shop for great deals. According to him, now really is a great time: “Retailers want to get rid of winter.” And as you may have suspected “three-day holiday weekends offer some of the deepest discounts you’ll see.” In general, weekends get crowded so I recommend going on a weekday to bask in customer service, easy parking and no lines for fitting rooms or checking out.
Lastly, Mr. Anderson reminded me of the proximity of the mall to O’Hare airport (about a 5 minute drive) and described the mall’s exceptional services like on-site baggage check to encourage travelers to bundle a shopping trip with travel out of O’Hare. This unique relationship to an airport means retail therapy might be just the thing you need to turn that travel delay into a designer-frock snatching sale triumph.
Happy sale shopping all!