Mirror, Mirror | Scoping out the outlets
New upscale shopping wonderlands like Philadelphia Premium Outlets deliver discounts and disappointments.
On a recent Wednesday morning, I waited for the traffic to taper off - as much as it ever does on the Schuylkill Expressway - and drove 32 miles from my Germantown apartment to the Philadelphia Premium Outlets in Limerick Township.
I had to see the discounts at Elie Tahari.
The 425,000-square-foot village-style shopping center opened the first week in November, attracting thousands of shoppers hot for bargain-basement deals. There are more than 120 name-brand stores, including Neiman Marcus Last Call Clearance Center, Ann Taylor, BCBG Max Azria, Nine West, and Lane Bryant.
If you know your brands, the potential for savings is fabulous. But if not, you could get got.
"The Carter's [children's store] outlet had some really great deals," said Jessica Schneider, who drove to Limerick from neighboring Gilbertsville to start her holiday shopping.
"But some of the stuff was so high-end, the discounts didn't seem to matter that much anyway."
I'm not a brand loyalist, but I definitely have my favorites: BCBG Max Azria and Nine West are high on the list. I've never met a Gap outlet I didn't like. I know the value of an Elie Tahari suit (although here one-third off a sharp $398 skirt was still $278). And when I can get a Theory-anything drastically reduced, I'll take it.
There were definitely some great buys, and, to my surprise, most of the merchandise was in season, meaning the stores weren't filled with summer apparel. The prices at the Coach outlet were a lot less than those at a Coach store. Miss Sixty Jeans, which are usually upward of $200, were only $85.
Now that I know I can get Nike Air Shoxx for $54, I'll never pay $120 again. Crocs, normally $30, are just $20 at the outlet. And I found a pair of $275 Nanette Lepore pants at Neiman Marcus for $96.
But there were some disappointments. Only half of the shoes in Aldo were actually reduced, and I kept picking up the pairs that weren't. And the Sean John store offered his women's cologne Unforgivable (I'm surprised I like it) with lip-gloss trio for $50. That's the same price it was at Macy's.
"I'm not that convinced," said Sherri Shayegan of Center City as she perused Miss Sixty with her daughter-in-law Paris Shamloo, 23. They'd already been to Michael Kors and BCBG, as well as Banana Republic.
"I work at Bloomingdale's and I don't see that much of a difference in prices here."
For a shopping center to be an outlet mall, more than 50 percent of its tenants must be manufacturers' outlets, according to Linda Humphers, editor in chief of Value Retail News, a Florida-based trade magazine for the International Council of Shopping Centers.
Over the last 10 years, the square footage of outlet space in the United States has increased from 50 million to 57 million.
These centers, located about 35 to 50 miles outside of major cities, are a far cry from the jumbled warehouse spaces filled with outdated clothes - think flannel shirts and plastic sneakers, with prices marked way down.
Today, outlet malls are focused on giving shoppers a luxurious experience, with sophisticated displays, good lighting and Starbucks coffee.
Their target customer, Humphers said, is an educated woman in her forties, with a stable home and disposable income, who is particularly brand-conscious.
"Outlet shopping is not really bargain shopping," Humphers said. "It's not always a better price at the outlets, but it's always a reduced price."
High fashion has also become the focus for these outlets, said Michele Rothstein, senior vice president of Chelsea Property Group, the company that owns Philadelphia Premium Outlets as well as Woodbury Commons in New York, The Crossings in Tannersville, Pa., and six outlets in Japan.
Rothstein said Philadelphia Premium Outlets is expected to draw 5 million visitors in its first year. Next year, more than 30 additional stores are scheduled to open.
"We have made the decision to shift the focus to develop in markets where there is a fashion shopper," she said.
But here's the real question: During the holiday season, with gas prices high, a recession looming, and most local retailers offering immense discounts, is it really worth fighting traffic and hauling out to Limerick?
If you like the experience of shopping, it is. This partially outdoor setup is pretty, clean, and quite easy to get around in (even I didn't get lost).
And if you are a label-conscious shopper and your daughter wants a patchwork Coach, this could be your holiday nirvana.
"As far as outlets go, I see a whole lot of designer stuff here, and it's so much cheaper than what you would pay at regular stores," said Eleny Zappos, 31, who was visiting from Boston with her husband, George.
"For us the trip was definitely worth it."
But if you are like me and tend to wing it more than plan, you may find yourself waffling. How do you know this is the right deal?
For example, I came pretty close to buying a pair of Michael by Michael Kors wide-legged denim jeans for $85. They fit and were the perfect shade of deep blue.
I just wasn't 100 percent sure that I couldn't get them cheaper at Macy's. So back on the hanger they went.
I'll be back in the spring.