Ins and Outlets

Our expert tells you everything you ever wanted to know about shopping Texas’ factory-outlet malls.

CONSIDER THE OUTLET MALL: SO AMERICAN and so inevitable is this cross between the grubby factory outlet of the past and the chipper middle-American shopping mall of the present that it’s a miracle no one ever thought of it before. Today these malls are upscale and sleek, but their origins are humble. They began on the East Coast in the late 1800’s as dingy back rooms of factories, often separated from the manufacturing area by only a flimsy curtain. To cut losses, factory owners offered their unsold and irregular merchandise to employees, who were happy to find a bargain—even if it did mean that one sleeve was longer than the other. Eventually the factories opened their doors to the general public.

So it went for more than half a century, until sometime in the 1970’s, when real estate developers hit upon the concept of the mega-discount-mall. The event was a watershed in retailing history. No more huge, faceless discount barns, with snarling bargain hunters milling around disheveled bins. No more endless pawing through tangerine or puce size 2’s and 24’s. Today’s outlets have class, with tidy displays and easily maneuvered clothing racks, but perhaps more important, they confer a sense of doing one’s best in a battered economy.

There are two reasons to shop in outlet malls. The first is to buy; the second is not to buy. Yes, you can save a bundle if you can find a batch of Ralph Lauren towels after poking through the “$3.99 a pound” bin at WestPoint Pepperell. But it’s even more fun when you know enough to bypass the fair-to-middling bargains. A four-quart saucepan and lid at Corning/Revere is $28.50, only a 16 percent savings over the regular price of $34, so if you’re shopping for a wedding present, a far better choice is an oval silver-plated tray at Oneida for $22—a 43 percent savings. Getting control of “bargain frenzy” is half the fun.

Go and Get It

TEXAS HAS FIVE LARGE factory-outlet malls near the state’s major metropolitan areas, plus a smattering of smaller discount malls elsewhere.

San Marcos Factory Shops (512-396-2200) is the largest Texas outlet, and “exclusive” is the key word here. The 68-store mall features such high-priced shops as Jonathan Logan, Cape Isle Knitters, Adrienne Vittadini, Geoffrey Beene, Coach, Jones New York, Donna Karan, Brooks Brothers, and Etienne Aigner. Yet while San Marcos’ upscale stores carry better-quality merchandise, they also offer the smallest discounts. A Marble bag by Coach costs $86 at the outlet, a mere 25 percent savings over the retail price of $114.

Mill Store Plaza, New Braunfels (512-620-6806), thirteen miles south of the San Marcos outlets, has 48 stores centered around WestPoint Pepperell—a bed-and-bath superstore offering large savings for shoppers with the time to sift through massive piles of merchandise. Mill Store Plaza is the mecca of housewares, with Lenox, Oneida, Royal Doulton, and Pfaltzgraff—four superb stores for savings and selections. Famous Brands Housewares, Corning/Revere, Kitchen Collection, and Welcome Home (a Victorian-style shop featuring rugs, wall hangings, crystal, and decorative items) round out the shops. If you’re looking for anything from small appliances to cookie cutters, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the name-brand merchandise.

Lone Star State Factory Stores, La Marque (409-938-3333), thirty miles south of Houston, is an unusually diverse, middle-of-the-road outlet with 177,000 square feet and forty stores. It has a great blend of housewares and clothing as well as both high- and low-end merchandise. Harvé Benard, Gitano, Bannister Shoe, Toy Liquidators, Bugle Boy, Cape Isle Knitters, Farberware, Kitchen Collection, WestPoint Pepperell, and Kid’s Zone exemplify the variety. The mall is planning to expand to 282,000 square feet and more than seventy stores in 1993.

Southwest Outlet Center, Hillsboro (817-582-9205), 35 miles north of Waco, off Interstate 35, has 56 stores with a slight emphasis on clothing and accessories. Nike, Liz Claiborne, Guess, Cape Isle Knitters, Jordache, Carole Little, Van Heusen, Wemco, Chaus, and Eddie Bauer offer impressive—in some cases incredible—markdowns. While most outlet malls have one lingerie shop, the Hillsboro center is awash in silk and satin, with Body Drama, Henson Lingerie, Gilligan and O’Malley, Maidenform, and L’eggs, Hanes, Bali.

Conroe Outlet Center (409-856-4979) is the newest of the megacenters. The problem is that it has only 25 stores—a disappointing discovery if you had planned to spend a whole day shopping. A much-needed expansion, which will more than double its size, is scheduled for 1993. Meanwhile, this small outlet north of Houston survives by having two high-profile anchor stores—Nike and Liz Claiborne—and smaller stores ranging from Carter’s Childrenswear to Maidenform intimate apparel.

Small-timers. Besides the five major outlets, numerous small centers throughout the state have been built around Vanity Fair factory stores. The VF Corporation is one of the largest apparel manufacturers in the world, selling under the brand names of Lee, JanSport, Jantzen, Health-tex, Wrangler, Barbizon, Red Kap, Bassett-Walker, Modern Globe, Girbaud, Lollipop, and of course, Vanity Fair. VF anchors shopping centers in Sulphur Springs, Mineral Wells, Corsicana, Livingston, Kingsville, and Hempstead. While these outlets don’t have great range, they do offer an impressive 50 percent savings on their own brands.

Rules of the Game

Beware: Price Tags Can Lie. You know that “suggested retail price” listed on the tag? A lot of the time it is inflated. True, you still save money, but you may not save as much as you think. A study done by Value Retail News, a trade publication for outlets, showed that while manufacturers claimed their average savings was 40 percent, in actuality it was only 27.5 percent.

Be Flexible and Forget Fads. It’s essential to pre-shop. Knowing the full retail prices at department stores means you can identify the best bargains at the outlets. Also, be flexible. You won’t find fads or trends at outlets because many of these stores don’t carry the current season’s merchandise, and if they do, it usually arrives four to six weeks later than when it appears in the major chains. When you have to purchase a particular brand or pattern of china, crystal, or silverware, call first, because

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