Outlet stores date back more than a century, to when factories offered discounts on excess and damaged shoes and clothing to employees—and later the public, too. Menswear manufacturer Anderson-Little opened one of the first off-site outlets in New Bedford, Mass., in 1950, and multistore centers appeared in the 1970s. In the following two decades, outlet malls took off, due to rising middle-class demand for branded apparel, says David Soberman, a University of Toronto marketing professor. Now, according to industry newsletter Value Retail News, 216 outlet centers dot the U.S., with 316 chains operating about 13,000 stores.
Outlets weathered the downturn by attracting cost-conscious shoppers. “There’s been a resurgence of people looking for value,” says Mark Libell, an outlet executive and author of the blog Factory Outlet Insiders. In 2009, Simon Property Group’s Premium Outlet Centers, the U.S.’s largest collection of outlets, saw sales dip only slightly, to $500 per square foot from $509 a year earlier. And outlets could continue to thrive, since they give fashion labels access to millions who otherwise wouldn’t shell out for designer duds
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