In Praise of Outlet Malls

It’s been years since I been to a proper outlet mall but visiting one in suburban Virginia gave me a renewed appreciation for what they can represent. Growing up outlet malls were somewhat of an event for my family. If we travelled to visit an aunt/uncle or family friend that lived near one, it was almost a certainty that we’d be shuttled to some suburban locale where the shopping choices and deals were plentiful. For Chinese families like mine, it was a point of entry into the American dream we saw on TV – video games, designer fragrances, chain restaurants and all.

While mega stores like Wal-Mart stressed everyday low prices as the main attraction, outlet malls made discount shopping into something fun. Browsing store after store full of deals made hunting through the racks feel like a rewarding experience. Before online discounters like Yoox and GILT, outlet malls were one of the few places where you could always save on name brand and designer items. Going into each store was always kind of a mixed bag. There was something exciting about the randomness of the shopping experience; a single size left in a jersey here, a pile of refurbished computer keyboards over there. Outlet malls rewarded effort; the more time you spent carefully perusing the racks, the greater the chance you’d walk away with a great deal.

While the middle school version of me couldn’t convince my mom to get me more than one pair of shoes each summer, I could sometimes finesse a new pair at the Nike Outlet off the strength of the markdowns. In this way outlet malls serve as a type of economic equalizer, they ease the pain of more extravagant purchases and allow those with lesser means a taste of the high life in the form of designer shirts and discounted 50” TVs. It’s said that money can’t buy happiness, but you’re sure to spot some smiles around the final clearance Polo rack.

Walk into any outlet mall in North America and you’ll see a wide swath of society. Families from all different backgrounds and social-economic classes will be shopping alongside each other. There’s something egalitarian about outlet malls that brings people together. In 2016 the choices in terms of online shopping are seemingly infinite. You can find the exact item you want with a few quick google or eBay searches, but still there’s something magic about the randomness of walking into an outlet store in search of a come up. The feeling is akin to browsing through a thrift store in a neighboring city or rifling through items at a sample sale. You never really know what you’re looking for when you go into an outlet store but you’ll probably walk away with some new purchases.

In 2013, outlet malls in North America generated revenues of over $45.6 billion. They are big business but at the end of the day what they deliver is a simple premise: save on stuff that you need and what you didn’t know even know you wanted. A day at the outlet mall feels like the equivalent of a shopping field trip. While they don’t really get a lot of shine in the media, outlet malls deserve some praise and a little respect.