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Outlet Bound

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We like bargains. We enjoy congratulating ourselves on not paying full retail price. And so we were lured to spend our money in Ventura County, where we don't live, rather than Los Angeles County, where we do. In his book The Reluctant Metropolis, William Fulton, an urban planner, calls the Camarillo Premium Outlets and the surrounding area "Sales Tax Canyon," arguing that by freezing taxes on personal property, Proposition 13 gave cities incentive to develop ugly clusters of outlet malls along the freeways in order to compete for Californians' sales tax spending.

We have generally been suspicious of outlet shopping, though not primarily for its urban-planning effects. Often, the supposedly bargain prices are higher than what you'd pay at a good sale at a normal outpost of a given store. Recently, though, were convinced by a bargain-hungry friend to make the trek to Camarillo a weekday roadtrip. In many cases, our suspicions held true, but there were some real deals on stuff we actually needed.

The Shoddy, the Bad, and the Ugly

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The Barneys New York outlet store had a few nice things, but the selection was minimal and the prices were nowhere near as low as at their legendary warehouse sale, which is going on right now in Santa Monica. The "Off Fifth" Saks Fifth Avenue outlet was definitely off. The Saks Fifth Avenue store on Wilshire Boulevard (hm, that phrase looks like it makes no sense, yet it describes a real place) has a perfectly fine selection and decent sales that sometimes render designer clothes more affordable than their mall-chain knockoffs. The merchandise at "Off Fifth" at the Camarillo Premium Outlets was a heinous brew of ugly, poorly made, and expensive. We're talking $100 flimsy calico short-sleeved blouses designed to be tucked into matching shorts. Also, sequins may have been involved somewhere, and not in a good way.

Rumor has it that some stores produce a lower-quality line expressly for outlets. This certainly seemed to be the case at the stores in Camarillo calling themselves "Factory Stores," particularly the Gap and Banana Republic stores. Seams looked like they'd rip at a slight tug. Cotton knit was scratchy rather than fluffy. The odd thing was that the prices were quite high. At the regular Gap and Banana Republic stores, the merchandise rotates onto the sale racks faster than a gymnast off the uneven bars. The regular stores have racks full of $12 sweaters and $9 shirts that are reasonably sturdily constructed of soft cotton or silk. At the outlet, a rough cotton sweater that was already fraying on the hanger cost $40.

The Bargain Bonanzas

We had better luck with the stores whose merchandise we otherwise have trouble finding on sale. These include things retailers know you need on a regular basis, such as running shoes, underwear, and t-shirts. They're prosaic items, yes, but that's why finding them at a bargain is so satisfying. For example, we have difficulty finding Adidas clothing on sale. The Adidas store at Camarillo Premium Outlets had shorts, pants, t-shirts and jackets of perfectly fine quality and comfort at half the listed retail price, something we've never been able to find in LA. (If anyone does know where to find local bargains on exercise garb, please let us know). Also, they have slightly older models of their athletic shoes at prices as low as $30. The stores selling women's undergarments (Maidenform and L'eggs Hanes Bali Playtex) also had decent stuff at lower prices than you can often find at department store sales.

We were very happy with the American Apparel outlet. The local American Apparel retail stores seldom have sales, because, unlike the Gap and Banana Republic, American Apparel doesn't change its styles or colors that often. Also, unlike many chain stores, it tries to provide the people who make its clothes with a decent working environment and a decent wage. If you get on the American Apparel e-mail list, you might get a discount coupon or a gift-with-purchase, but there's usually no clearance rack in the stores. The American Apparel outlet in Camarillo does sell discontinued and/or irregular items. This is marked on the tags. At least, though, the cotton used to make these slightly irregular pieces was as soft and bright as that of the clothes sold in the retail stores, and when the garments are on, you often can't tell they are sewn at all irregularly. The prices are about half those in the retail stores. It turned out at American Apparel that these irregular castoffs - the outlet-shopping cliché - were exactly what we wanted.