Girl Walks Into an Outlet Mall

Only in Texas would a massive, shade-free shopping center with tons of upscale discount stores be the state’s fourth most popular tourist attraction. (And in San Marcos, no less.) But enough of my spin. Where are the best bargains? Who has the coolest stuff? How do you stay hydrated? And—most important—what should you do with your husband?

IF YOU ARE PLANNING a trip to Texas’s fourth most popular tourist attraction, the side-by-side Prime and Tanger outlets in San Marcos, my first words of advice are these: Do not take along a Marxist or any other critic of the capitalist system whose sociological, psychological, or geopolitical worldview might weigh you down on your appointed encounters with supposedly gigantic markdowns on goods you absolutely, positively must have. This sprawling patch of Central Texas—a strip center on steroids just off exit 200 on the frontage road of northbound Interstate 35—is a place to travel light. Acknowledge any feelings of guilt or attacks of conscience (Do I really need a Gucci sweater? Don’t I have bills to pay?) and let them go. Otherwise, you will not be able to make the commitment necessary to shop in this weird and wondrous monument to consumerism, with its more than 225 stores from retailers the likes of Coach and Cole Haan, Pottery Barn and Crate & Barrel, Furla and Ferragamo, Nautica and Lacoste, Zegna and Hugo Boss, Nike and Puma, Polo Ralph Lauren and Brooks Brothers, Old Navy and Banana Republic, Sony and Bose, Neiman’s Last Call and Saks Off Fifth, and much, much more.

Obviously, sniffing out the bargains amid such apparent abundance is daunting to even the most experienced shopper. Walking distances can rival those of the Camino Real—minus the shade, plus myriad strollers—and at this time of year, in the blazing sun, the presence of soft drink and water machines seems more like a demonstration of corporate benevolence than an exercise in corporate opportunism. The following FAQ is designed to make your visit to San Marcos’ shopping mecca less arduous and more rewarding (or “passionate,” as the Prime Outlets press kit suggests). Sure, the Alamo is the state’s number one tourist attraction, but how much sale-priced Burberry can you find there?

How are the San Marcos outlets like the Louvre?

ASK YOURSELF THIS: Would you look at 50 zillion paintings before you got around to the Mona Lisa? Just as museum fatigue is an occupational hazard in Paris, so too is shopping fatigue in San Marcos. Like I said, there are lots and lots of stores in these two malls, some very large. Without a plan of action, you can waste hours pawing through pair after pair of cargo shorts and never make it to the button-down shirts you came for. Both malls have Web sites (tangeroutlet.com, primeoutlets.com) that contain maps, hours, and store directories. Download them in advance of your assault or else you’ll waste a lot of time. I spent seven hours at the malls on my first visit and didn’t make it to Last Call, which is a little like turning back before reaching the summit of Everest. And know thyself. If you aren’t a St. John’s girl at full price, why would you be one at a discount?

How are the San Marcos outlets like Las Vegas?

SENSIBLE GAMBLERS know to set a limit before they hit the tables; the same rule holds true for discount shoppers. If you don’t, you’ll suddenly find yourself identifying with Imelda Marcos, and a Jil Sander coat, marked down from $7,000 to $4,000, will seem like a great idea. Unless you like frequent calls from American Express, decide what you’re entitled to spend before you go. Then stick to it, even if you have to carry that amount in cash.

Tanger or Prime?

EXIT THE NORTHBOUND freeway and you can go left or right, into one mall or the other. Tanger is currently renovating with a down-home Hill Country theme; Prime has updated its northernmost end with a flouncy Venetian identity that is supposed to evoke the Piazza San Marco. (San Marcos, San Marco—get it?) These differences are somewhat telling. The Middle American–ish Tanger Outlet has deeper discounts, but the more upscale Prime Outlets has better stores. You can do substantial damage at both.

When to go?

LET’S TURN THE QUESTION AROUND: The absolute worst times to go are Thanksgiving weekend, the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and the spring holiday known as Semana Santa, when wealthy Mexicans leave their home country in droves and descend on San Marcos for an annual bargain-hunting bonanza. Summer afternoons are brutal, particularly that tax-free weekend just before school starts. It’s best to go on weekdays at dusk, when the crowds have gone home to eat dinner. Both malls are open until nine o’clock during the week, so you can arrive at six and still have three hours—plenty of time to seriously deplete your checking, savings, and charge accounts.

What’s the best place to send an upwardly mobile teenage girl?

THE LACOSTE STORE. The tiny polos in brilliant colors sell for (the less absurd price of) $53.99 instead of (the usually stupendously absurd) $72. The only problem: Sizes here are limited. Can she take the heartbreak when she finds the perfect mango-hued polo available only in a 14? The size problem reoccurs throughout the malls. Many of the best clothes were available in only two sizes: microscopic and gargantuan.

Discounts: Real or imagined?

Part one

DEFINITIONS ARE TRICKY things at discount malls. Basically, outlets come in two forms. “Factory stores” sell less expensive goods made specifically for such venues (“The only retail establishments where shoppers can buy directly from the manufacturer,” according to Tanger’s Web site). Then there are the bona fide outlets, which sell overstock—items that didn’t sell in conventional stores and are now deeply discounted in hopes of getting them to a final resting place other than a rag dealer on the Texas border. There are people who believe that the quality of goods in factory stores is inferior, and there are those who want to pay less but lack the patience (and greed) for the treasure hunt of picking through inevitably chaotic racks of cut-rate merchandise.

Store clerks are loath to admit what their store is (“Uh, it varies,” one told me),
though some stores, like Brooks Brothers, clearly label themselves as a factory store. One way to know: Occasionally, the price

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