Japanese tourists drawn to outlet in Hudson Valley Woodbury Common is a prefabricated village in the Catskills

August 02, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CENTRAL VALLEY, N.Y. - Machiko Takenaka, 25, a self-described "office lady" from Tokyo, was on a whirlwind tour of New York City. The day before, she had seen "Cats." She was bound for a Mets game in the afternoon. But on this lovely morning, she had carved out time for that supreme Japanese-tourist pastime: shopping. Gucci, Max Mara and Anne Klein were just a few of the stores on her itinerary.

Rather than hit Madison Avenue, however, she had boarded a bus at the Port Authority terminal, rolling north through the reed-cloaked marshlands of New Jersey, past car dealerships and tanning salons and into the foothills of the Catskill Mountains. There, a kind of retail heaven awaited her, a seemingly incongruous crossroads where luxury and bargain shopping meet.

Many New Yorkers are unaware of Woodbury Common, a 220-store complex an hour north of New York City where designers like Versace, Christian Dior and Prada (masquerading under the name Space) have quietly opened discount outlet stores in recent years. But to the Japanese tourist, the outlet center - a kind of prefabricated New England village plunked down in the middle of nowhere - is hallowed ground, a must-do destination for even the most abbreviated trip to New York.

'It has become famous'

"It has become famous in Japan," said Takenaka in halting English, her shoulder supporting a Prada bag that held the $300 she had budgeted for the day's shopping spree.

The yen has fallen against the dollar to its lowest level in years, and the economic crisis in Asia has led to a modest decline in Japanese tourism. But because of regulatory controls and an unwieldy distribution system in Japan, most consumer goods in the United States are still far cheaper for the Japanese than those in their own country.

"The Japanese love to shop," said Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Trend Report, a company in Upper Montclair, N.J., that tracks national consumer-spending patterns. "They're very label-conscious and they want bargains. So when they come here, they see the prices and say, 'Oh my God, this is one-half the price it is over there,' despite the fact that the yen has lost so much of its value."

Madison Avenue is certainly more convenient than Woodbury Common for foreign tourists in New York City. But not wanting to compete with themselves, high-end designers prefer to place outlet stores, which sell excess inventory from previous seasons, a good distance from their bread and butter: full-price, in-season merchandise. For the status-seeking, bargain-conscious consumer, the trip to Central Valley is a small sacrifice.

Outdrawing Statue of Liberty

Six major Japanese tour operators include a trip to the outlet center, either as part of their standard package or as an option. One operator, Ano Hallo Tours in New York, reported that a trek to Woodbury Common was the most popular daytime activity for the 16,000 Japanese tourists the company brings to New York each year, beating visits to the Statue of Liberty and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

At first, Chelsea GCA Realty, the company that owns and operates Woodbury Common Premium Outlets - as it is officially called - along with 20 similar centers across the country, sat back and marveled at the trend. But lately Chelsea, with headquarters in Roseland, N.J., has begun to court the Japanese shopper.

The company now holds workshops every few months for employees at the outlet center, providing tips on how best to serve Japanese customers. Sales clerks are told that it is wrong to approach the customer aggressively. They are encouraged to place change on a tray, following Japanese custom, rather than in the shopper's hand.

The outlet center opened in 1985, and by 1995 had become a Japanese tourist attraction, a phenomenon not limited to metropolitan New York. The realty company said its outlet centers in Cabazon, Calif., outside Palm Springs, and in Waipahu, Hawaii, also see throngs of Japanese shoppers.

(What the unwary shopper may not realize is that some of the stores at Woodbury Common also sell clothing lines that they have created only for the outlet store, clothes made of cheaper fabrics, for instance.)

Earlier this year, Chelsea GCA started to advertise in the half-dozen Japanese women's magazines that appeal to so-called office ladies: young women who are hired by Japanese companies to perform low-level clerical work and serve tea. Such women are not only savvy about the latest fashions but also have disposable income, because they tend to live rent-free with their parents until they marry.

Chelsea has also hired someone fluent in Japanese to help staff the information booth at the outlet center. Size-conversion charts, a list of stores that carry clothes in sizes 2 and 4, which many Japanese women wear, and maps of the complex are all available in Japanese.

Running to Gucci

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