• Photos: Nebraska Crossing's transformation
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In the movie “Legally Blonde,” Reese Witherspoon, who plays law student Elle Woods, is chided by a fashion-savvy male for sporting a pair of last year's heels: “Don't stomp your little last-season Prada shoes at me, honey,” he tells her derisively.
Now, now. What's so terrible about wearing shoes that aren't quite up-to-the-minute, particularly if they're cute, you love them, and you picked them up for a deep discount at an outlet mall?
Let's ask Jamie Draeger, 31, Gretna business owner, hairstylist and frequent outlet mall shopper.
“There's nothing wrong with that at all! We work in fashion. It's still a good product,” said Draeger, who, like many of her clients, is hoping to find beaucoup de bargains when Nebraska Crossing Outlets opens Friday.
Beginning that day, Omaha-area residents and others will be able to shop at more than 60 outlet and factory stores — including Coach, Borsheims Boutique, Kate Spade New York, Nike, Gap, Rack Room Shoes and Kitchen Collection — without putting hundreds of miles on the odometer. After an 8:30 a.m. ribbon-cutting Friday, the new 350,000-square-foot, $112 million Gretna outlet shopping center opens for business at 10 a.m. at the intersection of Interstate 80 and Highways 6 and 31.
With the countdown clock ticking, many would-be outlet shoppers are asking: What kind of merchandise do outlet stores carry? Will I find last season's shoes at a deep discount? Will there be in-season products: sweaters in the winter, shorts in summer? Are some products made only for sale at the retailer's outlet or factory store? And the big, big question: Will those items be less expensive than their full-price counterparts?
It's been tough for Omaha-area consumers to comparison shop, considering that the nearest large-scale outlet malls are in Kansas City, Kan., a 180-mile one-way trip, and Williamsburg, Iowa, a 220-mile one-way jaunt.
Here's what we know so far: All the Nebraska Crossing stores will be outlet — sometimes called factory stores — off-price or value-priced retail stores. But, depending on the retailer, that description can cover a lot of territory. The Old Navy store will be like other Old Navy stores but likely offer more discounts and sales because of its outlet location, the center's management said.
Some retailers may offer last season's fashions at a discount along with a selection of products made specifically for their outlet stores — it all depends on the brand, according to the most recent Consumer Reports survey of outlet mall goods.
“It's no secret that many retailers make a line that is specifically designed to be sold at their outlet stores,” said Linda Humphers, editor-in-chief of Value Retail News, a trade publication of the International Council of Shopping Centers.
But that doesn't meant the made-for-outlet merchandise is low-quality. “It's not going to be schlock,” Humphers said. Retailers don't want to damage the store's image by selling shoddy goods at their outlet store.
More than 300 retailers, including many luxury brands, operate outlet divisions.
“We don't know what percentage of a retailer's merchandise is made for outlets. But almost every chain has something made for outlets,” Humphers said. “If you're not sure whether an item is a made-for-outlet product, ask. Ask the salespeople.”
Retailers view their outlet divisions as a lower-priced entry point for shoppers, with the hope that consumers will “like the brand” and be motivated to shop at the full-price store, Humphers said. In the Omaha area, it's thought that many new-to-Nebraska retailers are testing the waters by opening an outlet, Humphers said. “If the outlet does well, they may think about opening a full-price store.”
At Coach Factory stores, the majority “of the product line is specific to the outlet stores — perhaps last year's style in this year's fabric,” said Jeffrey Edelman, director of retail services and consumer products advisory services for McGladrey LLP, a consulting firm.
What's the difference?
The made-for-Coach-outlet handbag may have fewer pockets or embellishments and be made from less-expensive materials than its full-price counterpart.
And that's fine with Draeger: “The variety of prices is nice and you'll still get the brand.”
The Gap outlets and Eddie Bauer outlets also adhere to a similar strategy as Coach, offering a large selection of merchandise made specifically to sell at their outlet stores, retail analysts say.
Kim Loretta, manager of the new Eddie Bauer outlet at Nebraska Crossing, described it this way: “Most of the products at our outlet store are specifically made for the outlet stores.”
Those products, including men's and women's apparel and gear, have the same “active, outdoor feel” that characterizes the brand “but at a lower price point,” Loretta said.
What that might mean is the brand will retain it's familiar style or signature, though there may be differences in the styling or fabric — instead of the full-price silk version, you may find its cotton cousin.
Garment construction also may differ. A man's dress shirt may have fewer stitches per inch or fewer buttonholes than the full-price style, said David Ober, president of the Council of Developers of Outlet Centers & Retailers.
“Outlet goods are designed to sell for less than retail goods, so don't assume they're exact copies,” Consumer Reports said. “The regular retail items were usually a trifle better because of construction details or better materials. But in most cases, the outlet versions were fine.”
The upshot? “Your experience may depend on how hard you are on clothes, how finicky you are about styling, or how happy you are saving money,” Consumer Reports concluded.
For many shoppers, minor differences in the stitching, fabric or detailing aren't an issue, Ober said.
“You get what you pay for, but I think the quality can be just as good,” said Draeger, who recently visited Legends Outlets at Kansas City. “I bought a pair of workout pants at the Under Armour outlet store a couple weeks ago and saw a pair that was full price at another store. I got a deal, they were the same quality.”
Stores such as J.Crew, Chico's or Michael Kors outlets carry only their own brand or their parent company's family of brands.
“If you walk into Michael Kors, everything is Michael Kors,” Ober said. For shoppers who want to quiz the staff about a particular item or design, that's a plus, Ober said. “Because that's the only brand they carry, they'll know everything about it,” Ober said.
Christopher Brown, the national project manager for Corningware Corelle & More, was helping set up the retailer's new Nebraska Crossing store last week. Brown said the Corningware outlet will carry the brands of World Kitchen, Corningware's parent company, a list that includes Corningware, Corelle, Pyrex, Snapware, Chicago Cutlery, Baker's Secret, Olfa and Visions.
On the other hand, outlet stores such as Sunglass Hut, Motherhood Maternity and Kitchen Collection offer an assortment of brands. At Kitchen Collection, for example, you're likely to find KitchenAid, Krups and Cuisinart and other name-brand products.
The shopping center's owners want to make sure shoppers find discounts.
Kelly Calderone, Nebraska Crossing Outlet's property manager, said retailers are required to offer discounts. “It's in their leases that there are certain percentages of merchandise that have to be discounted,” said Calderone, who works for developers Rod Yates of OTB Destination and Frank Krejci, the shopping center's majority owner and head of Omaha's Century Development.
The percentage is based on the retailer's outlet model, Calderone said. Management will also keep tabs on store inventory levels to make sure they are up to snuff by conducting periodic store evaluations.
“There will be bargains,” Calderone promised.
“When I see an outlet mall, I don't think super cheap,” said Draeger. “I just think you can get some good deals. It's hit-or-miss.”
Draeger said she thinks outlet shopping is fun and likes that there are so many stores in one spot. “If you don't find something at one store, you just go to the next.”
At Nebraska Crossing Outlets stores, you'll find wood floors, attractive displays and good lighting and sound systems. A quick peek into the dressing rooms at several stores, including Polo Ralph Lauren, revealed good-size changing rooms with flattering lighting.
What you won't find are bins of snagged, ripped or damaged goods. Ten to 20 years ago, outlet stores were more likely to sell “seconds” or what's also known as “B grade” goods with imperfections or blemishes. Today that's much less common, Ober said.
Just like full-price shopping centers and malls, outlet shopping centers have the same sales schedules as retail stores, meaning you can find extra savings during the holiday shopping season, including Black Friday and Thanksgiving weekend, Consumer Reports found.
Nebraska Crossing Outlets already has its Thanksgiving holiday schedule in place. Yates said the Gretna outlet mall plans to open at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving.
Draeger and friends plan to be at there when it opens this Friday. “We're going to make our way out there and shop, make a day of it.”