One industry that’s thriving in this economic downturn is outlets. They racked up $30 billion in sales last year. Virtually everything is on sale every day, but do outlets really give you a big bang for the buck? To find out, Consumer Reports surveyed its readers about their nearly 39,000 visits to outlet stores.

Almost 18,000 subscribers were asked about their outlet shopping experiences. Consumer Reports asked about the key parameters: value, quality, service, and selection.           

Sixty percent of shoppers said outlets offered exceptional value. Readers were more likely to find great deals at stores such as Coach, Haggar, Izod, and Van Heusen. And there’s more to like about outlet shopping. About three-quarters of those surveyed characterized the quality of the merchandise they bought as excellent or very good.

Consumer Reports also did its own quality comparison, buying $2,000 worth of clothes and accessories at outlet and retail stores.

 Boxer shorts were $10 at the Gap retail store. The shorts from the outlet were just $5. But they were of better quality. The retail shorts had loose threads and stitching.

A Polo Ralph Lauren oxford shirt cost $76 from a retail store. The outlet version was $40. In that case, the quality was comparable.

However, the retail versions were often a bit better, such as the Tommy Hilfiger sweat pants. The retail pants have a well-made drawstring, while the outlet’s shoestring version looks cheap.

The bottom line is that outlet shopping is worth the trip. The merchandise quality in most instances is fine. And Consumer Reports' shopping trip saved as much as 61 percent!

Consumer Reports says you should no longer assume you’re getting leftover merchandise at all outlet stores. Coach, Sunglass Hut, and other retailers told Consumer Reports they sell new items made specifically for the outlets.