Buying direct. Cutting out the middlemen. It has a really tempting ring to it. Everyone loves a bargain and many will go to great lengths to find one.

That's why the factory outlet has become an institution in New England.For many years, many New England manufacturers, mostly shoemakers and shirt-and-sweater companies, sold their returned goods and surplus merchandise and unshippable "seconds" at large discounts in small stores, plopped just anywhere out in the boonies.

They were purposely located far away from real stores so the factories were not competing with their own wholesale customers. Shopping at the outlets became a privilege for locals - for the families who worked in the factories.

Increasingly, vacationing visitors stopped in and discovered the outlets as they wandered along the rural byways. They stopped in for a cheap thrill and then went on to tell others about it.

The idea caught on and many people were in the habit of making long special trips to find these bargain shacks. Unfortunately, the interstate highway system got rid of most of the spontaneous shoppers.

The factory outlets became lonely places, except for the loyal locals and the few weekend visitors. So the manufacturers decided to move their outlets away from the factory. Now some of them even operate what could be called a chain of factory outlet stores. They even hooked into the bus tour market so that people who take vacation trips around the country visit New England not to see Cape Cod, but to buy six great sweaters and five pairs of shoes.

In our 20 years in New England, we have become converts to the factory outlets. When we discovered our first it was a novelty to check out. Now for certain clothing and shoe items, it is the preferred place to shop.

There is hardly a year when we do not discover some new outlet that we never knew existed. We have not reached the extremes of some of our friends, who will travel many miles on weekends in a buying frenzy and whose egos depend on their ability to find the best bargains first.

Generally, factory outlets have all the charm of warehouses. They are huge barns where clothing hangs entirely on its own merits, in a stark splendor most impressive for quantity.

It works. People who mill around in these unexciting places exude an aura of excitement. They appear to be people who are on to something. Because they think they've found something that few others know about, they are determined to buy. They will leave there with a bargain in hand if it kills them!

The cash registers are always busy and there is no need to actively sell. It is as if the process is different than in a normal retail outlet, where people peruse the merchandise shyly, afraid they will attract the unwelcome attentions of a sales clerk.

In the factory outlet, people tend to lose their inhibitions. They move fast and frequently stop to try something on, even if it involves removing some of their present clothing. There is a feeling that everyone understands. The protocol is unique and unquestioned.

When our relatives first came to visit they were interested in historic sites and cultural activities. But by the time they had been here more than once, they headed straight for the factory outlets. There was a de-emphasis on cameras and a pre-occupation on wardrobe.

A trip to New England means coming home with attractive threads and shoes that can be worn while explaining the unbelievable bargain price. Westerners can eat their hearts out.

We have become so accustomed to hitting the outlets, that those few times that we emerge to visit a "real store," we feel vaguely uncomfortable. It is so dressy and decorated and it makes us wonder how much is spent on overhead. Once or twice a year is enough. Just to see how others - people with so much money that they don't care about the outlets - live. Just to see if we would rather shop in expensive surroundings.

Then back to the factory outlets! The true heart of New England.