BLACKWOOD, N.J. — Since its debut two years ago, Gloucester Premium Outlets has been a hit. It became a major draw for South Jersey and Philadelphia-area residents seeking name-brand items at discount prices, and has been a boon for local tax collectors.
Exit 7B, along Route 42 South, became synonymous with the outdoor shopping venue because taking that exit puts you almost in the outlets' parking lot.
But the venue also represents a rare bright spot in retail: Outdoor outlet malls are doing well nationally just as many indoor malls are dying. The outlet centers, which began in the 1980s, now number 200 in the United States, representing nearly $50 billion in market value, according to research firm Green Street Advisors L.L.C. Simon Property Group and Tanger control 75 percent of the market.
One factor helping outlet malls is that they typically lack department stores, which are bearing the brunt of retail's closures. The promise of discount prices (if not always the reality) and the open air locale at outlet malls are also drawing shoppers.
Gloucester's outlets fit the trend. "Sales at the center have shown a double-digit increase over the previous year, and this success has enabled us to add impact retailers such as Michael Kors and Brooks Brothers," said Peter Zekan, Gloucester outlets' general manager. "Customers are traveling greater distances to come shop with us because of our range of brands and the extraordinary savings we offer."
The mall's visitors are also fueling the local economy, said Gloucester Township Mayor David Mayer.
"This is the largest economic development in the history of Gloucester Township and the township's largest ratable," said Mayer, who is running for his third term. "We've seen the economic ripple effects as the properties near the outlets have gone up and our ratable base has gone up, and it's driving thousands to spend money in our community to grow our economy."
Mayer said that, in 2014, the farmland where Gloucester Premium now sits was assessed at $49,700 and its owner paid $18,000 in property taxes to the county and township.
Last year, the same land was assessed at $11 million, and Simon, which owns the outlets as well as King of Prussia Mall, paid $112,500 in property taxes to Camden County and Gloucester Township.
Likewise, the mall buildings were assessed at $58.1 million in 2015 and generated $390,000 in property taxes, of which Gloucester Township received nearly a third, or $109, 245. Last year, the mall buildings were assessed at $69.2 million and paid $420,942 in property taxes, and the township received $117,864 of that. The county and township are expected to receive about the same amount this year, said Mayer.
But while Gloucester has gained, another South Jersey outdoor venue — Tanger Outlets the Walk in Atlantic City — has waned.
"Everyone is reporting sales down 10 percent or more," said a sales clerk at the Walk's Nine West shoe store who didn't have the authority to speak to reporters and asked not to be identified, as did other store associates interviewed. "My [sales] numbers are down, but I can just tell from the number of bodies. Traffic is down and my numbers confirm that."
Nine West is among a dozen stores clustered in what is known as the Courtyard at the Walk in A.C. which connects the beach with the A.C. Convention Center. The shops include H&M, Dress Barn, and Famous Footwear.
"Why would you come down here if you can shop down there?" the same clerk asked. "I mean, unless you come here for the beach or casinos, why would you come here" to shop?
Five of six stores randomly selected on a recent Friday reported a decline in sales and customers this summer. Tanger management declined comment.
Voorhees resident Jackie Dougherty, 38, hasn't shopped at the Walk since Gloucester Premium Outlets opened Aug. 13, 2015. Dougherty was among the people who came for the grand opening.
"It's more convenient," the elementary school teacher said while she was inside the Under Armour store to check out the 50-percent-off Fourth of July holiday sales. "It's super close. I save on gas, tolls, and time. And I don't have to deal with traffic."
When compared side-by-side: Gloucester Premium Outlets measures 376,000 square feet with 90 stores; Tanger Outlets the Walk,which opened in 2003 and has had multiple expansions, features 109 stores and encompasses three city blocks.
The average distance shoppers travel to get to Gloucester outlets is 48.3 miles, and one out of every three has a family, such as Shawna Williams, 33, of Sicklerville.
She shopped there for the first time recently with her boyfriend, Juan Lazaro, and his sons, Carlos, 12, and Angel, 10.
Williams said she typically goes to Cherry Hill Mall, or Hamilton Mall in Mays Landing, on her way home from Atlantic City. But something about Gloucester Premium Outlets made her to want to return.
"I like being at an outdoor mall because you get the fresh air and you don't feel closed in, and there are places to sit outside."
About 35 miles away, Atlantic City regular Richard Bijacsko, 52, who describes himself as "a gambler, shopper, and beach bum," said other factors were contributing to the thinned crowds at the seaside resort.
"Five casinos closed here," he said while strolling the Walk just before 8 p.m. on a recent Friday. Many gamblers come with a spouse or friends who prefer to do other things besides gamble, such as shopping. "I see more families and fewer gamblers from last year, but there is nothing for the kids [to do].
"I came down here for Fourth of July weekend and if you were the first customer to buy something, you were the only customer in line. I am not seeing the big crowds on a big weekend like I used to, and I've been coming here for 30 years."