This past weekend marked our second excursion with the carshare vehicle. We piled into the red “Migraine” (that’s a Megane, in Matt-speak) for a sunny Sunday afternoon drive, with a destination in mind: The so-called Quality Outlet, in a community called Barkarby, in what one might consider the outer Stockholm suburbs.
We have spent some quality time (and a lot of money) in outlet malls. Back in December and January, in the course of our mini-North American tour, we visited several, where we bought shoes, underwear, socks, pants, you name it — a lot of the things that we think of as too expensive to buy here in Stockholm, in part because they are.
An example: I held my breath last summer and bought a new pair of running shoes and some socks from a specialized running store in downtown Stockholm for about 1650 SEK, or more than $200. I needed new shoes, I just had to do it. And then, in January, I bought the same pair of running shoes for 90 bucks at my mom’s favorite running store in Ventura.
Matt had a similar experience: his running shoes were on sale for about $30 at an outlet store south of Ventura.
Why? Can taxes and import fees alone explain the price differences? Or is it something like Switzerland, where people are willing to pay full price because they have the free cash and they want the newest best thing, and so stores can charge what they want? I am not sure, not even after visiting the outlet mall in Barkarby on Sunday.
I’m still trying to make sense of the experience. Matt says, “it was awesome.” We hit a discount home store, where they had towels and sheets, furniture, and more; we bought some hangers, a few down pillows, and then moved on. We poked our heads into the sports stores, InterSport and Stadium, which were completely overwhelming — 20% to 70% off tons of things we no longer need because it’s nearly summer or we bought them already in the US — or because they were still expensive, even on discount!
The equivalent of a down jacket on sale for $100 at Real Cheap Sports in Ventura was still $120 on deep discount here in Sverige. But then I picked up four pairs of SmartWool socks at half the price (because, yes, I am a sucker!).
Once we had finished scouting out the sports stores, we went into the actual open-air outlet mall. Wayne’s Coffee (think Starbucks, only Swedish) looked to be doing the best business of all, as our fellow shoppers fell into line to buy coffee and snacks in between shopping. (There was a lot of black clothing in there — black jeans, jackets, sweaters, hats… so much for Swedes loving color! I think it’s only in their home decor, but I digress.)
After fortification, we went to the outlet for the Swedish hip designer clothing line, WESC (WE the Superlative Conspiracy). They didn’t have the flannel shirt Matt wanted that he saw at InterSport, as they had already moved into spring — but don’t worry: I went back and bought the shirt for his birthday, at 50% off and still 400 SEK, or $60. We wandered into the Ecco shoe store and a “Brands” store next to it that was carrying Ben Sherman and other high-end labels (plus Teva boots, which was weird, as I’m used to their sandals — still well over $100 for a pair on deep discount). We walked into the Levi’s store, and left after seeing that the prices were close to what Matt paid in the US at an outlet mall in California — a pleasant surprise! — and the Wrangler/Lee jeans store, where a pair of khakis was over 500 SEK, on sale, or $75.
Some of the brand names here you might know if you are reading this from North America, but I’m about to move into another realm. The best deals were at Peak Performance, the Swedish sports clothing line — Matt bought a pair of khakis for 200 SEK, or $30. I have no idea why they were so inexpensive. However, I noticed that other Swedish designers, like HOPE and J. Lindeberg and Filippa K, offered one or two extremely discounted items, but the rest seemed as expensive as it might be in their regular stores, though slightly discounted. Why bother going to the outlet mall if there are no screaming deals?
But that seems to have become the case in North America too. Outlet malls were once places for companies to dump their excess from a past season at bargain prices to just get rid of stock and cover some costs — or so I recall. Very quickly, outlet malls morphed into a second-tier sales opportunity: The Gap and Banana Republic and other big brands quickly started making clothes specially for their “outlet” mall locations — slightly poorer quality or simpler designs, not the stuff in their main shops. For example, I went to J. Crew at the Ventura outlet mall and found nothing from their online catalogs, only clothing labeled “J. Crew Outlet”. So where did the excess from their first-tier shops go?
I can’t answer that. Filene’s, the grand store of deeply discounted high-end out-of-season goods, is bankrupt. I think the Century 21 in downtown Manhattan, which was even more rarified, is also gone. Perhaps the rich are buying more of these goods on their first time around, or the Internet market has picked up the rest — digital storefronts like Zappos and Sierra Trading Post.
And maybe the habits necessary for being a good shopper have never changed, despite the advent of outlets and other lures: You look for the sales, for the coupons, for the screaming deals wherever they may be, at a top shop in downtown, or out in the ‘burbs in the outlet malls. You remain open to opportunity. Or you accept that you will pay full price for something that you really want in the moment. That’s capitalism, baby.