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For good buys, elbow your way through a factory outlet

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An elderly woman peers into the hallway of Parker's Candies Factory Outlet in Fall River, Mass., which has just closed for the day. Six other women, with packages strewn on the ground next to them, crane to see over her shoulder.

''There are seven grown women out here crying,'' calls the first. ''Won't you open up for us?''

No, they won't. Unlike many retail stores these days, Parker's isn't worried about sales. On a busy Saturday like this one in late October, about 4,000 people pass through the store, estimates store manager David Sinclair.

Parker's isn't in the middle of a shopping mall. It sits at the end of a small road, along with some other outlets. Its location would seem to indicate that a factory outlet doesn't have to seek out shoppers; with these prices, shoppers will come to it.

And the shoppers are coming - by the busload, in fact. According to Anna Duphiney at the Bristol County Development Council, as many as 60 bus tours come to the Fall River-New Bedford area on a Saturday during the peak season between October and Christmas.

In Reading, Pa., where over 100 factory outlets and ''off-price'' retailers have set up shop next to each other, busloads come by the hundreds. ''It's getting too commercial in Reading,'' notes Jean Bird, author of seven factory outlet guides covering Maine to South Carolina. ''People line up to get into stores, and then line up to get out of them.''

It's normal to find apparel and soft goods (towels, sheets, etc.) in a factory outlet or off-price store at 30 percent to 70 percent off the usual retail price. This reporter nearly bought a $140 coat at Lord & Taylor department store which sold for $69 at Milltowne Factory Outlet in Fall River. Fieldcrest blankets, about $50 retail, were $24.99. Men's Van Heusen dress shirts were being snapped up for $16.99, about a 33 percent savings. And hard leather Renwick briefcases, retailing at $210, could be had for $139.

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