Image: Marni, Milan, Italy
Paul Redmond  /  Getty Images
Find Consuela Castiglioni's intellectual, artsy wares at Marni, in Milan, Italy — marked down 50 percent or more.
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updated 7/18/2008 1:25:29 PM ET 2008-07-18T17:25:29

This may be the summer of high gas prices, but that's not stopping hordes of shoppers from driving for hours — or in some cases flying across continents — to visit the world's best outlet stores.

U.S.-based outlet stores generated $16.5 billion in 2007, says Linda Humphers, editor-in-chief of Value Retail News, a journal published by the International Council of Shopping Centers, a New York-based trade organization. Despite high gas prices, Humphers says that number is expected to top $17 billion this year.

What's the appeal? These stores offer extraordinary discounts on high-end, high-quality goods. At the Marni outlet store in the suburbs of Milan, for example, those on the hunt for designer Consuela Castiglioni's intellectual, artsy clothes — from just last season — will find them marked down 50 percent or more. Christine Low, a fashion show director based in Beijing, says it's the only outlet in the world she frequents.

"I am not a very patient shopper," she says, "but I end up spending more than two hours every time I am in Milan at the Marni outlet."

And for shoppers looking to travel abroad this summer — especially those flying into the U.S. from Europe, the Middle East or Asia — outlets provide the ultimate "shopcation."

Michele Rothstein, a spokesperson for Chelsea Premium Outlets — a network of outlet centers that carry primarily up-market, luxury goods — says that when some tourists from Asia visit the famed Woodbury Commons in Central Valley, N.Y., they get off the plane at JFK or LaGuardia, hop in a cab with three or four empty suitcases and simply say "Woodbury." And the cab driver knows where to go. In fact, Asians make up such a huge percent of the company's customer base that they opened six centers in Japan and one in Korea over the last five years.

Deal or no deal?
Those in search of a similar "shopcation" might flock to the Prada factory outlet outside of Florence, Italy, to purchase a coveted handbag, or head to Gotemba, Japan, for a discount on the avant-garde label Maison Martin Margiela.

But for those just looking to cut a deal — not create an experience — do outlets really provide a bargain? It seems that everyone has a story about a disappointing trip to the outlet stores. Hopes were high, wallets were heavy, but there just wasn't anything to buy.

In the 1990s, when outlet shopping first gained traction in the U.S., inventory was sparse. Today, however, these stores aren't just filled with cast-offs and surplus from past seasons.

In fact, 80 percent of the products sold in outlets are designed particularly for those stores, says Marshal Cohen, chief retail expert at the Port Washington, N.Y.-based NPD Group. Although the clothes are discounted 25-40 percent off regular store prices, they're produced with less frills: Instead of a 100 percent cashmere sweater, you'll find a more modest cashmere-cotton blend. The retailers save on production, but they also save by eliminating the middleman, says Cohen. In the end, it's a profitable business despite the discounts consumers receive.

Image: Prada/I Pellettieri d'Italia, Montevarchi, Italy
Jennifer Graylock  /  AP Photo
If in Montevarchi, Italy, stop in at designer Miuccia Prada's fashion house, formally known as I Pellettieri d'Italia — what its outlet store still goes by.  Shoppers can also find deep discounts — 50 percent or more — on Prada's second-tier line Miu Miu.
These include savings on Lora Piana and Brioni at unisex Jeremy's in San Francisco and 70 percent off goods from Finish kitchen and bathroom outfitters Arabia, Hacksman and Iittala at Helsinki's Arabia Factory Outlet. Don't want to drag your Teema dishes or Aalto vase across continents? The warehouse offers an efficient export service.

All evidence says that outlets win this summer despite threats from online retailers and local discounters biting into their bottom line. Charlie Graham, founder of Shop It To Me, a San Francisco-based aggregator of online sales, says although the online competition is stiff, there are definitely still deals to be had.

His advice? Before heading to Milan for some discounted Dolce & Gabbana, know the original prices.

"Just always be on the lookout," he says. "The stores will have a mix of great deals and not-so-great-deals."

© 2012 Forbes.com

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