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Outlet Malls A Big Hit For Back-to-school Shoppers

ELLEN GIBSON

NEW YORK (AP) â¿¿ Parents have a new goal this back-to-school shopping season: Buy their kids the name brands they want without spending like it's 2007.

After the recession began in late 2007, cost-conscious consumers sought out the cheapest shirts and shoes they could find at merchants like Wal-Mart and Target to keep their budget in check. But these days, value is the name of the game.

Shoppers who are just as concerned about style and quality as price are flocking to factory outlets, where they can snag Gap, Nike, Vans and other designer clothes and accessories for 25 to 70 percent off. In fact, a quarter of parents said they plan to do the bulk of their back-to-school shopping at factory outlets and discount stores, compared with just 16 percent planning to do so at malls, according to the American Express Spending and Saving Tracker.

"I still want the brand names," says Lisa Santa, who took a break from her vacation recently to hit the Jersey Shore Premium Outlets to find a first-day-of-school outfit for her third-grade daughter. "So I came here hoping to get lower prices on quality stuff."

It's a major shopping shift from the recession, when many Americans shunned pricey designer labels in favor of dirt-cheap buys. Now, they're back to shopping for brand names as the economy slowly recovers, but are still unwilling to pay full price for Guess jeans and Oakley sunglasses because of worries about high unemployment and stock market volatility. As a result, clothing sales were up 18 percent year-over-year in July at factory outlets __ more sales growth than every other retail concept except warehouse stores, according to research firm NDP Group.

During the back-to-school season, which runs roughly from mid-July through mid-September, there's a big opportunity for outlet centers to cash in on the trend. The average family with kids in grades kindergarten through 12 plans to shell out $604 for clothes, school supplies and electronics this year, according to the National Retail Federation. For college students, who also need dorm furnishings, the budget is $809. Both figures are a few dollars lower than last year, but combined will still amount to $69 billion for retailers -- and outlet stores are expected to capture a large portion.

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