Words-worth: Outlet

Is yours one of those businesses that has 'outlets'? The word has come to encompass any point of contact between a retail organisation and its customers: shops, supermarkets, petrol stations and pubs.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

There's something unpleasant about it, however. Isn't an outlet something you find at the end of a sewage pipe? The dictionary defines an outlet as a place or opening at which something escapes or is released: water, from the 13th century, but also much nastier stuff. It's an odd way of looking at the retail experience, with shoppers cast as passive recipients of a flood of merchandise gushing out in their direction. But shops have been called 'outlets' for a long time. 'Retail outlets' are referred to in an article in Planning magazine from 1933. In our own day, there are 'factory outlets' or 'outlet stores', where manufacturers offload surplus stock direct to customers at low prices. This is a US invention of the 1960s, first imported into the UK by the shoemaker C&J Clark in 1993. Such 'outlets' can also provide an 'outlet' for unruly emotions: the need to shop, for instance.

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