I went shopping recently and nearly fell prey to the mind-bending parallel universe of outlet mall economics.
Outlet malls are stocked with items that are so cheap, you can't afford not to buy them. Only the sharpest shoppers keep their wits about them. I am not one of these shoppers.
I've been to the outlet mall before. The last time I went I got really overwhelmed. There's just so much stuff at such low prices that it's hard to know where to put your eyes. When the fluorescent light hit the sleeve of a lavender cashmere sweater in exactly my size, I knew I had to have it. I don't wear lavender, it makes me look like a corpse, but when have you ever seen a cashmere sweater marked down to $21? It was originally $160, so I left the store with the sweater and a sense of satisfaction at having earned $139.
I know for sure it cost $21 because it's still in my closet with the price tag on it, a pastel reminder of why I can't be trusted at the outlet mall.
Outlet malls are made for people like my husband. He's a person with a plan and no ambiguous feelings about the plan. This is the major difference between the two of us and sometimes the only way our kids can tell us apart. He arrives knowing exactly what he needs, along with sizes and quantities. He transacts and then finds the most efficient way back to the car. He's highly successful at the outlet mall.
I wander. I walk into a clothing store where everything is 60 percent off, and the salesperson hands me a scratch off card. All of a sudden I'm on a game show. She asks me to go ahead and scratch it to see how much additional savings I'd won. 15 percent! The salesperson cheers. I can't believe it. I must buy something!
Thirty minutes and a full dressing room later, I feel like I've let fate down. There's nothing I want, not one cropped top or pair of faux leather pants. A sweater is too big in one size and too small in another. I can't make anything work, no matter how great of a deal it is. I leave the store feeling like I've lost the Showcase Showdown on The Price is Right. I was so close.
We walk by a handbag store, and I spot a brown one in the window. It's pretty. It's about the right size to hold a spiral notebook, but not so big that you feel like you're hauling a high schooler's backpack. It has some fringy stuff hanging off of the bottom that I could probably cut off. And it's brown, making it already a better decision than my lavender sweater.
I go in to have a closer look. Bonanza! Everything in the store is 80 percent off. And this bag happens to be an extra 10 percent off. How is that even possible, I wonder. How much are normal retail items marked up in the first place if this discount still makes sense? I reach for the price tag to see just how cheap the bag is.
The tag says $5,000. Which is exactly how much it would cost my family of five to see Hamilton. Or have our deck repaired. With my insurance, it's the cost of three colonoscopies. And I don't even really like the bag that much. I can't see what's so $5,000 about this leather rectangle. But it doesn't matter, because I am about to get sucked into outlet mall economics.
The salesman must have registered the look on my face as I tromboned the price tag forward and back to make sure I was seeing it correctly. "It's 80 percent off," he tells me. "So it's only $1,000. And with the extra 10 percent off it's $900."
Suddenly this bag is so cheap. Suddenly I'm the luckiest girl in the world. They've dropped this bag a whole place value. Suddenly I can't afford not to buy it. I'd be leaving $4,100 on the table if I left the store without that bag. That's almost enough money to take my family to see Hamilton.
I hate to admit that I was perilously close to spending $900 on a handbag I didn't really like. Luckily, a woman walked in to the store wearing a pair of lime green jeans and brought me back to my senses. No one at the outlet mall was making good decisions. Well, no one but my husband.