outlet malls used to be secret treasure troves far away from cities and their namesake retail stores. They sold rare, past-season merchandise at discounted prices or blemished designer dresses missing buttons or beads.

Now outlet malls are a $30 billion industry, and retailers celebrate their outlet stores as a means to amplify their brand or find new customers.

“Every company has different strategy,” said Tod Marks, senior project editor for Consumer Reports. “Some sell castoffs or oddball sizes. Others sell products made for the factory store. Designer outlets try to lure the aspirational shopper.”

That’s good news for the brand-conscious consumer. In the recession, outlet malls are thriving, and retailers are rewarding shoppers with low prices and quality goods. Whether you’re a fan of Potomac Mills or Leesburg Corner, outlet malls have become a great place to find a bargain. But they can be tricky to navigate and overwhelming during the holidays. Here are some tips for conquering outlet malls.

Facts on the merchandise

Not all outlet stores operate the same way. High-end designer outlets differ greatly from sportswear or athletic-wear outlets. All stores, though, stay true to their brand heritage, meaning they don’t stray far from the look, feel and quality of a retail store. Designer outlets appeal to brand-conscious shoppers, so Gucci or Chloe at Premium Outlets, an upscale chain of outlet malls, sells past-season merchandise. You’re more likely to find a dress missing buttons at a designer store than at a moderately priced label. “These super-high-end stores don’t want to cheapen the label,” Marks said. “Quality and exclusivity is important.” Gap, Banana Republic, Brooks Brothers and other mainstream mall labels manufacture products for outlet stores. Marks notes that Brooks Brothers 346 is a line sold mostly at outlets, while other chains mark “factory store” on the label. Most labels don’t differentiate their outlet labels from their retail merchandise. When in doubt, ask a salesperson.“Companies are up front about what they stock,” Marks said. “And we’ve found that the salespeople know their brand. If you’re not sure if something is made for the store or overstock, ask.”


Made for the outlet? Not a problem.

Just because a company makes a product exclusively for the outlet store doesn’t mean it’s low quality. In a 2011 Consumer Reports study that surveyed 17,753 readers, almost 75 percent of shoppers considered the quality of outlet merchandise to be excellent or very good. “They may be a notch below retail, but things made exclusively for outlets are still of good quality, even with shortcuts,” Mark said. For example, outlet stores may use plastic buttons instead of leather ones or manufacture the item in Asia rather than Europe. That doesn’t mean products are inferior. The quality may be slightly less than a designer retail store’s but is often just as high as a department store’s.


Research the chain

If you know nothing about the brand, you’re going to have a hard time determining whether the prices are good. “You have to be careful,” Marks said. Just because something is in an outlet store doesn’t mean it’s on sale. Retail stores have sales, too — sometimes ones that are just as good as the sales in the outlets. On that note . . .


Some stores aren’t outlets

If a store is in an outlet mall, it doesn’t mean it’s an outlet store. Marks has noticed that some outlet malls will mix in less expensive retail stores; he cited accessories retailer Claire’s. If you’re not sure whether you’re getting outlet prices, ask the outlet’s customer service center or go to the outlet’s Web site.


Ask for coupons

Before you go to the outlet, do your research and visit the mall’s customer service center. Many outlets will have coupon books that you can request online or in person. Customer service centers will also let you know about unadvertised sales at stores in the complex.


Go early and avoid holidays

The worst time you can visit an outlet mall is from noon until 3 p.m. on weekends. Marks recommends going in the morning, before the products are picked over, or in evening, when the afternoon crowd is at dinner. Also, avoid holidays when crowds turn out. It’s always best to shop outlets on a workday.


Be aware of return policies

Outlets tend to be situated far from cities and retail stores. Marks says that’s for a couple of reasons: They don’t want to cannibalize the brand, and real estate is generally less expensive outside of big cities. But remember, you’re driving 30 miles to get to the outlet, and that costs money. So add in the cost of the drive to the sales you’re getting. Also, remember that most stores will not let you return outlet products to a retail store. Some outlet stores are “all sales final.” If you buy something, you’re probably stuck with it.


A word of caution . . .

You’re making a pilgrimage to the outlets, and you could be tempted to spend a lot or buy things you don’t really want. Don’t throw the rule book out. Just because you made the drive doesn’t mean you have to buy.

THE BOTTOM LINE You can find deals at outlet malls, but all outlet stores are different. Some carry overstock from previous seasons, and others manufacture products especially for their outlets. Ask questions and pay attention to details. Overall, you’ll find that stores stay true to their brand, meaning discounted products are of high quality.