In a world where scads of sales can be found anytime online, devoting an entire day, a half tank of gas and a week's pay to a mall, even an outlet mall, would be like ducking into a phone booth and depositing a dime.
Not since my back-to-school pilgrimages to Rushmore Mall had I done either. Until last month, during a two-day wardrobe-rebuilding spree at Fashion Outlets of Chicago in Rosemont and Chicago Premium Outlets in Aurora.
In the fragile days after, I don't mourn parting with the minutes, miles or money. This was not just long overdue, it was fun. And by fun, I'm referring to all the below:
•Paying $108.16 at the Ports 1961 outlet in Rosemont for the cobalt blue jersey dress, with French seams and flawless fit, that originally was $640.
•Finding a pair of black knee-high leather boots, pull-on and not too tight or roomy around the calves, with a heel that's not too high or spiky, in my size, at the Ferragamo outlet in Aurora, for $388, originally $995.
•Being offered a bottle of water or Diet Coke as I buttoned a cardigan on the final day of the Tory Burch Outlet's "additional 25 percent off" sale, then giving a sidelong glance to a bootie another shopper was trying on and stealing her idea.
•Returning to my car after rush hour, flush with finds and toting a pouch of Wetzel's Pretzels and a plastic tublet of jalapeno cheese.
Fun. Fun. Fun. And (glutenous/gluttonous) Fun.
Want yours? Do your homework, set your budget, schedule a day off and throw crises to the wind.
Make a list and estimate price. Review your closet and note needs. For me: Knee-high boots and/or booties, a turtleneck and/or cardigan, a dress. Be realistic and resolute about prices you're willing/able to pay. Allocate some amount to incidentals, such as the Vera Bradley wristlet that I bought in Aurora as my sister's birthday gift. For anyone who likes Vera Bradley's prints, the outlet in Aurora is a gold mine of holiday stocking stuffers, by the way. A clip-on light for reading is $12; a petite pouch for coins is $4.98. But I digress, which is extremely easy to do at an outlet mall. Which is why you should first …
Go to the mall's website. Preview the list of stores and plot your priorities. Click on Events for sale listings, especially if a holiday approaches. Cynics assume those "50% off everything!" signs are just gimmicks. But I found truth in advertising at Kate Spade in Aurora. Its Columbus Day weekend sale, which started Wednesday (the day I shopped), meant I got a skirt, sweater, necklace and earrings for $167, total. That and other sales were listed on the Premiumoutlets.com site. Shop early in the week and day, if possible. (On weekends the line to enter Tory Burch in Rosemont snakes out around Starbucks' kiosk.)
Consider amenities such as shuttle service from downtown Chicago for a fee, which both the Rosemont and Aurora malls offer, with perks such as coupon books thrown in. At guest services in the Rosemont mall, travelers can check their baggage through to their flight and catch a shuttle to O'Hare.
Shop less-hyped gems. Ports 1961 in Rosemont qualifies. The construction and design of Ports clothing exceeds some of the better-known runway brands, with top-notch construction, fabric and design. I bought a dress, one I could envision on the first lady, for $99. Ports 1961 is more under the radar than Prada and Gucci, so the inventory is less picked over, and with only one other U.S. outlet you're not likely to see others in the same dress.
Be a control freak. I even mapped where I'd park, planned my route through the malls and assigned a rough timeline. Otherwise, it's easy to get sucked in to a noncore store and fritter away your time and money. I detoured into a store that wasn't on my list and almost bought a couple of sweaters and a pair of black pants, half off. Who can't use another pair of black pants? But as I reminded myself of my wardrobe mission statement — "Elevate, not accumulate" — I put them back.
Prepare for letdowns. At Prada, I asked to try on a black patent bootie, $350, but a teeny-tiny size 35 was the last pair. On any given day, discounts there and at other, even less expensive, stores (e.g. Vince in Rosemont; Seven for All Mankind in Aurora) may underwhelm you.
Prepare for surprises. The designer inventory at Neiman Marcus Last Call astonished me: a Lanvin emerald dress (originally $5,490; outlet $1,921), an Alaia spotted calf-hair moto jacket (originally $7,980; outlet $2,793), a Zac Posen dress (originally $2,190; outlet price $766.50), a Jil Sander red peacoat (originally $2,620; outlet $947), a Chanel pearl-encrusted jacket (originally $26,410; outlet $9,245). Though the additional 30 percent off that day didn't put any of these within my reach, I enjoyed admiring them without full-retail policing.
At the mall
Start at the back of the store. The back racks boast the best deals; that's where I found the Ports 1961 dress for $99. Ask if prices are as marked. Scrutinize straps and buckles to make sure they function; be sure belts, buttons and stress points are intact.
Ask about exchanges/returns. After buying booties, pumps and a cardigan at Tory Burch during an "additional 25 percent off" sale, I feared I had bought one too many. (In the future I will self-impose a "limit: 2 per customer" on items with logos.) Once home, I panicked when I saw "All Sales Final" on the receipt. I called and mercifully was told that returns were accepted. Not all stores are so open, and some limit returns to a narrow time frame of purchase. To avoid buyer's remorse …
Impose a waiting period. Resist buying on your first stop at a store. I asked if I could put items on hold for the day; every sales associate obliged. When I returned hours later, I felt confident about my purchase, and the sales associate appreciated that I returned.
Engage sales associates. Don't assume that "outlet" means zero customer service. One associate at an Aurora outlet store gave me his business card and told me if I ever see an item from the brand at full price online or in a regular store, call him to see if it's there. He said some pieces arrive in the outlet store at a 30 percent discount straight out of the gate.
Inquire and inspect. Ask whether merchandise is made specifically for the outlet or comes from full-price collections of the current season or past seasons. At many stores, the inventory is a hybrid. Part of the fun of outlet shopping is to build your ability to discern which is which. Hint: Is there a lot of one piece? It might be made for the outlet. It doesn't mean it's subpar, but it calls for extra scrutiny.
Perform an exit interview. Before you cut a single tag, try on your purchases with existing favorites. The gray-brown "elephant" color of my new Tory Burch booties worked with any neutral base and offered a fresh alternative to my high-mileage black booties.
Elevate, not accumulate. For every item I added to my closet, I removed one to donate.
It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Five worth the drive
Fashion Outlets of Chicago
5220 Fashion Outlets Way, Rosemont, 847-928-7500, fashionoutletsofchicago.com
Highlights: Prada, Gucci, Barneys, L.K. Bennett, Herve Leger, Forever 21.
6170 W. Grand Ave., Gurnee, 847-263-7500, gurneemills.com
Highlights: Neiman Marcus Last Call, Saks Off Fifth, H&M.
Just added a full-price retail wing, anchored by Macy's.
Lighthouse Place Premium Outlets
601 Wabash St., Michigan City, Ind., 219-879-6506, premiumoutlets.com
Highlights: Polo Ralph Lauren, Hollister.
Chicago Premium Outlets
1650 Premium Outlets Blvd., Aurora, 630-585-2200, premiumoutlets.com
Pleasant Prairie Premium Outlets
11211 120th Ave., Pleasant Prairie, Wis., 262-857-2101, premiumoutlets.com
Highlights: Ugg Australia, Coach, Justice, Chico's, Hugo Boss, The North Face, White House Black Market.