Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Outlet Malls and the Universal Studios Florida Principle

This post comes to you from Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, home of surf, sand, salt-water taffy, and three massive incarnations of the Tanger Factory Outlet Mall.

So here's my thing about outlet malls. Once upon a time, when clothes were actually manufactured in the United States, clothing companies would sometimes operate "factory outlets" that sold overstock or imperfect items. (The distinction between "irregulars" and "seconds" eludes me now, but any bargain hunter of a certain age can fill you in.) These stores were either adjacent to a factory or else in low-rent rural areas, and the savings in transportation or rent made the sale of cut-rate merchandise workable.

Outlets didn't for the most part advertise their existence beyond their immediate geographical reach. A few billboards along the highway drew in enough shoppers to clear merchandise that, after all, existed only as a byproduct of quality control and overly optimistic production. Discovering a new outlet while on vacation carried with it a certain smug satisfaction.

But over time, demand for the outlet shopping experience--and, presumably, for the attendant smugness--mushroomed beyond the limited supplies of imperfect goods and factory-adjacent retail spaces. Indeed, these supplies dwindled as offshoring shuttered domestic factories and rendered the cost of bringing defective merchandise to market unjustifiable.

Fortunately for the outlet industry, we Americans are highly amenable to what I term the Universal Studios Florida Principle. The Principle is an entrepreneurial maxim holding that commercial exploitation need never be subverted by reality. The origin of the name should be familiar enough: by 1990, the "back lot" tour of Universal Studios was so popular that Universal built a second movie studio in Florida just so that people could tour it. And it was a huge success! Universal's gamble--that the marketability of a studio tour would in no way depend on the authenticity of the studio toured--paid off in spades.

Following this Principle, enterprising manufacturers and real estate developers created special "outlet" clothing lines for the major brands, to be sold at purpose-built "outlet malls" across the country. Tanger is the largest chain, with 32 locations in vacation spots coast to coast. Another successful chain is The Mills Corporation, with 15 properties each called "[Name of City] Mills." The names evoke quaint New England factories, steeped in local history, lovingly rehabilitated for modern bargain hunting convenience. (The malls are, of course, nothing of the sort.)

Shoppers throng to such establishments, unaware that as with every other modern apparel purchase, they are being spoon-fed an illusion of value in which $40 appears a rational price for $1 worth of fabric, 25¢ worth of labor, and $1.50 worth of shipping from Bangladesh.

I am one of these shoppers.

1 comment:

  1. It was not only fun but adventurous. They do have a good one at the outlet mall. a beautiful outdoor plaza as you make your rounds.outlet shopping is entirely completely different experience.

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