Friday, August 2, 2013

Factory Stores and "Factory Stores" Shopping

A favorite J. Crew Factory shirt.
After visiting a wonderful factory store at a great company last weekend, we stopped by a mall listed as an outlet mall with factory stores. The experiences were very different, and it made me think of some of the other factory stores and "factory stores" I've been to over the years. Many have changed from being stores attached to a factory, where samples and surplus products are sold, to stores which use the brand's name to create entire lines of clothing specifically made for the "factory" store.

When I was younger, my family would make a point of stopping in Freeport and Kittery in Maine on our way back home from my grandparents' cabin. Since we visited in the summer, we made the annual stops on the way home to pick up clothes for the upcoming school year. My favorite was the stop for boots and backpacks at L.L. Bean which always included marveling at the progressively more intricate tents, and a cone at Ben & Jerry's after.

The outlets we stopped into were outlets in the old sense of the word -- full of items that the store ended up with too many of to sell at the regular stores, or a place for the brand to sell their items without a retail markup. Nowadays, however, most outlet stores have their own line of clothing that is made only for the factory or outlet.

Many times these "factory" stores will have items that look very similar to the items sold at the regular store, but on closer inspection, one will notice that the pattern is slightly different, and the buttons are more spread out. The jewelry may not lay correctly, or the white pants may be thin and unlined. The tags will also often be different, sometimes listing the style number with a "F" at the beginning to denote the item as being made specifically for the factory. These differences are not due to a mistake when the item was made, but what some might consider a purposeful misleading of the customers who enjoy a certain brand.

The trouble with this practice is for the non-observant consumer. One may think she is getting a great price in comparison to the regular items sold by the brand, when in fact she is actually paying for a lesser quality item. If one knows the pencil skirt at the regular store sells for around $130, and she sees one at the "factory" store which, at first blush, appears to be the same skirt, she will think that the price tag of $75 is a wonderful win. But if the skirt is unlined, the fabric is a bit more rough, and the pockets are smaller, the factory skirt is better compared to the cheap trendy stores than to the brand which bares the same name as the "factory."

Whether one thinks this is disingenuous or simply a clever business practice, having a separate line is not, in itself, a problem. It simply means that one needs to pay close attention to detail, and weigh the product against the price. If one gets excited by a seemingly lower price, and does not look closely at the item, she may be paying more than it is worth.

J. Crew is one of the many brands that have a separate line of clothing for their "factory" stores. This has not always been the case, but as with many other brands, they have started a separate line. There are still really great items at the factory store, and I am happy to shop there a few times a year, and have found some really great items, including a layered pearl necklace I adore. Something I was very excited to see at the factory store recently was Madewell products. Madewell is owned by J. Crew, but does not yet have its own factory store, so the Madewell items at the J. Crew factory store were true surplus items, and were of great quality. Had I not been paying attention to each item I picked up, I may have missed the great prices and quality of these items.

It always pays to look closely at labels, patterns, cuts, fabric, and the placement of buttons at any store, and one should simply be extra vigilant at a "factory" or "outlet" store. Some items are wonderful and one will get a great price, but others are not, so one must be even more careful and discerning than she normally might. When a great item and price are found, it is exciting and well worth the vigilance.

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