On Vacation-Gone Shopping Outlets: Many tourists are passing up museums, art galleries and the great outdoors in favor of a trip to the discount mall.

August 25, 1996|By Edwin McDowell | Edwin McDowell,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Strolling past the Saks Off Fifth outlet, Dress Barn and a camera store in the vast corridors of the Potomac Mills discount mall in Dale City, Va., three college students from France smiled with anticipation as they spotted a shop that sold athletic wear.

When they emerged with their purchases, including the New York Yankees baseball caps that were high on their list, one student, Philippe D'Haucourt, said, "Now that we've seen the tourist sights, we can go home."

His quip held more than a kernel of truth. Potomac Mills and many other discount outlet centers have become so popular with foreign and American tourists that they are now bigger attractions than the Liberty Bell, the Jefferson Memorial, the Alamo and many other traditional tourist treasures.

Of the 17.2 million shoppers who spent $358 million last year at Potomac Mills, 30 miles south of Washington in Virginia's historic Prince William County, at least 4.5 million were tourists, according to a survey made by mall officials.

The travel industry defines a tourist as someone who travels at least 100 miles or stays in a hotel or motel overnight.

Under a somewhat looser definition, as many as 6 million of the visitors could be considered tourists, said Patrick McMahon, director of the Virginia Department of Tourism.

The gigantic enclosed mall, with its 225 shops, is far and away the most popular tourist destination in this tourism-rich state -- well ahead of Arlington National Cemetery, with 4 million total visitors a year; Colonial Williamsburg, with 2.5 million; and Mount Vernon, 10 miles or so distant, at 1 million.

The only attraction in the region that rivals Potomac Mills in drawing tourists is the Air and Space Museum on the Mall in Washington. It draws 8.4 million visitors a year, although many of those are from the surrounding region.

To be sure, many people combine shopping with visits to historic sites, amusement parks, beaches or family and friends. But many just want to shop, planning vacations solely around that passion.

And that is not unique to Virginia. From Maine to Hawaii, bargain hunters flock to discount outlets, turning what was once an obscure corner of retailing transacted in mostly out-of-the-way locales into a booming industry.

With sales at the 331 outlet centers in the United States projected to exceed $14 billion this year, up from $6.8 billion at 186 centers in 1990, outlets are the fastest-growing segment of the retail industry -- and, it turns out, one of the fastest-growing of the travel industry as well.

The trend includes Potomac Mills and 10 other discount megamalls that feature not just manufacturers' outlets, but also big discounters like Wal-Mart and Ikea and "off-price" stores like Marshall's that typically offer overstocked brand-name merchandise from a broad range of manufacturers and department stores.

Whatever their names, the outlets draw huge numbers of tourists.

In northeastern Philadelphia the 215-store Franklin Mills outlet, which opened in 1989, drew an estimated 17.8 million visitors last year, including almost 6 million tourists. That is four times the 1.5 million total visitors to the Liberty Bell, for decades the state's top tourist attraction.

In San Marcos, Texas, the estimated 4.2 million tourists last year at two outlet centers combined far exceeded the total of 2.9 million visitors drawn by the Alamo in San Antonio.

And Pigeon Forge, Tenn., a hamlet of fewer than 3,330 people with 200 outlet shops, drew 10 million visitors last year, a million more than visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park nearby, the nation's most heavily visited destination park.

Forget Williamsburg

George Ku Tours in New Castle, Pa., 55 miles north of Pittsburgh, runs three-day shopping tours to the Williamsburg Pottery Factory near Williamsburg, Va., with a stop at Potomac Mills. "We don't stop at Colonial Williamsburg, since this is an all-shopping tour," said Joan George, an owner of the family business. Buses sometimes return so loaded with packages, she added, that the toilet is used as a storeroom.

Even at Niagara Falls, N.Y., which has two big outlet malls, shopping often takes precedence over falling water. "You'd be surprised how many bus tours come here for shopping," a spokesman for the visitors' bureau, Tom Darro, said, "and couldn't care less about seeing the falls."

The Travel Industry Association of America recently said shopping was the most popular activity of vacationing Americans last year, and McMahon has an inkling of the reasons. "The only time many people have to shop," he said, "is when they're on vacation."

Shop 'n' golf

To keep tourists flowing in, outlet centers participate in package tours with nearby hotels, golf courses and casinos. In Washington the Gray Line tours feature a daily excursion to Potomac Mills, less than 45 minutes away.

Some conventional malls also draw millions of shoppers. But they tend to be in major urban centers, charge full price and cater overwhelmingly to local shoppers.

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