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?
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 tags at factory stores contain the word “factory.” The Banana Republic store at Tanger Outlet was, according to an employee, mostly a factory store; few to none of the clothes there were identifiable from my frequent previous forays on the Web or in the better malls. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t very good buys (white jeans for $20, linen shirts for $26.99). In other words, don’t turn your nose up at either kind of outlet.
BEFORE GOING TO THE MALLS, do your homework. Most serious shoppers have already committed to memory the prices in the Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware, and Crate & Barrel catalogs. (Don’t they seem to show up in your home almost as often as Newsweek?) People with particularly severe shopping issues also know, generally, the prices of things in highly addictive stores like J.Crew, Banana Republic, and the Gap. Still, it doesn’t hurt to brush up in advance. Brand names aside, some items—wine glasses, for instance—were cheaper on the Pottery Barn Web site than at the outlet mall, especially when you factor in the cost of gas for the drive to San Marcos. An Original Dopp kit was $58 in one discount luggage store but online could be found for $44.95.
BOTH MALLS SELL DISCOUNT COUPON BOOKS for anywhere from $3 to $7 (you can get Tanger’s in a vending machine on-site for $5), but you can download a coupon on the Web at shopacrosstexas.com, present it at either mall’s guest services center, and get the coupon books for free. There are also weekly specials featured on their Web sites. Membership in Prime’s 1Club, a sort of frequent-buyer program, is free; sign up at the mall or online. (On one of my visits in July, 1Club members got 20 percent off any item at the Calphalon store and 10 percent off any non-sale item at the Sony store.) AAA members can also pick up big discounts at certain stores in both malls. A smart shopper can compound the savings by exploiting all available discounts: At the Le Creuset store, for example, customers can combine store discounts with the AAA discount on alternative “sets” of different-colored pottery and end up with a 76 percent price break (chat up the store’s oh-so-knowledgeable manager, Jerry Guinn, for the best prices of the day).
Where to find sustenance?
EITHER PACK IT IN OR LOAD UP at the Starbucks on the other side of I-35. Otherwise, you can walk for days and still not work off the calories consumed at the malls’ many fast-food joints. Hydration is a must. There is a plethora of drink machines scattered throughout the property for a reason. Avail yourself consistently if the temperature has surpassed 75 degrees or you will find yourself stumbling and mumbling insanely like Ralph Fiennes in the darkest parts of The English Patient. Worse, you might buy something under duress. Never a good idea.
The biggest surprise?
THE BOOKSTORES. Usually these are the dogs of outlet malls, stocked as they are with books remaindered for good reason. While the Borders store in Tanger and the Book Warehouse store in Prime had their share of tomes by Al Roker and Ari Fleischer, there were also plenty of good reads. Borders offered old Clive Cussler and Nicholas Sparks novels in hardback for $5.99 each. Book Warehouse was more literary, offering a hardback of Douglas Brinkley’s The Boys of Pointe du Hoc for $4.99 and an audio version of Michael Lewis’s The New New Thing for $6.
I have only one hour. Where should I shop?
IF YOU ARE PRIMARILY interested in household goods, head straight for the Pottery Barn outlet. It’s the size of the Parthenon and has not just standard Pottery Barn fare but also discounted merchandise from its cousin companies Williams-Sonoma, West Elm, and Pottery Barn Kids. This means that in one store you can find terrific discounts on glassware, furniture, cooking oils, bedding, desk accessories, and the like. I was particularly enamored of a tall, darkly stained cabinet with glass doors, as well as a brown linen armchair— both marked down to around $875 from $1,899. A plush, olive-hued $3,300 sectional sofa was only $1,200, and a wonderfully upholstered bed—Jean Harlow or Clark Gable would have loved it—was $1,600, down from $3,300. An elegant mohair easy chair was marked down from $1,900 to $1,049. This is a great place to shop for wedding, graduation, or baby gifts in bulk: Wooden salad bowls were around $27 instead of $32, and a superhip Dualit toaster was $69.99 instead of $219.95.
I have only three hours. Where should I shop?
MY VOTE GOES TO THE FAUX PIAZZA at the northernmost tip of Prime Outlets. This area contains many of the European imports that fashionistas crave—Furla, Ferragamo, Lacoste, Zegna, Hugo Boss—but is still within walking distance to Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware, and Crate & Barrel. More expensive? Yes. But better quality.
Whom should I shop with?
ANECDOTAL EVIDENCE SUGGESTS that by far the best shopping companion is your mother or your daughter, provided the latter is over the age of eleven (see opposite page). Given the plethora of near-catatonic men collapsed on benches in both malls, the worst person to bring along is a husband. Metrosexuals can be appeased somewhat; dispatch them to Little Italy (Hugo Boss, Ferragamo) as well as nearby Brooks Brothers, Johnston & Murphy, and Cole Haan. Exile gearheads to the Sony or Bose stores (where the latter’s prices on the noise-canceling $249 and $349 headphones are exactly what they are everywhere else). The best place to send red-meat types is the Coleman store, the only such store in the state and one with enough camping equipment to outfit both Attila the Hun and Marco Polo. Some of the stock—a $500 gas grill sufficiently big enough to cook for an entire Scout Jamboree—is seriously marked down, and the rest is merely reasonably priced. (A salesman explained that Coleman doesn’t offer deeper discounts because it cannot afford to undercut major retail channels in the area, like Wal-Mart and Academy.) One benefit of this particular shopping plan is that the Sony and Bose stores are in Prime, while the Coleman store is in Tanger. Visiting all three could take a while. If your he-man shows up too soon, tell him that the Brooks Brothers store sells boxer shorts for $16 a pair, or three for $42. That should buy you at least another hour of shopping.
Where’s the best place to find bargains?
GO DIRECTLY TO the back of the store—any store. This was as true at Pottery Barn as it was at Michael Kors. (Who cares if it’s last year’s cashmere when it’s marked down from $595 to $69.99? Not me.)
Too good to be true?
ALWAYS READ the fine print. I was just about to go wild buying OPI nail polish, which was listed at $1.99 a bottle at the Head 2 Toe Beauty Outlet. Then I noticed the words “available with a $50 purchase.” Otherwise it was $7.49 a bottle. At goddess-within.com it was on sale for $5.
THE DONNA KARAN store, not to be confused with DKNY Jeans, closed more than three years ago. Amazing designer overstock, dirt cheap. R.I.P.
Saks Off Fifth or Neiman’s Last Call?
OFF FIFTH HAD A FEW spectacular buys and very little junk, and it’s organized in a way that doesn’t induce migraines. Neiman’s is more muddled but also had spectacular buys. It comes down to how much you enjoy searching for (potentially) buried treasure. At Neiman’s, for instance, I scoured the racks and found a Jean Paul Gaultier jacket that began life at $1,520 and was marked down to $190. Alas, it was a size 4, which I am not. Neiman’s also had better Anne Klein selections than the Anne Klein outlet itself, along with Valentino, YSL, and Piazza Sempione. Saks, on the other hand, had lovely Burberry ensembles ($229, down from $635), as well as Hollywould (once $4,000, now $1,400), Gucci, and Piazza all in plain sight. Both stores had an impressive array of Jil Sander at substantial discounts, a clue that allowing the designer to abandon her own label—again—was not a good idea.
MY FEELING IS that an outlet mall is no place for children under eleven who have not yet learned to consume like bloodthirsty hyenas. Judging from the number of strollers occupied by very cranky toddlers, however, large numbers of people seem to disagree with me. Are you there to shop or babysit? If you have no choice but to bring the kids, it might be best to bring a sitter too and send him or her and your progeny to Prime’s curiously truncated gondola ride. Kids under three ride for free, and they’ll most likely pass out quickly from the lack of shade.
Should I cultivate salespeople?
THINK CELEBRITIES and socialites are the only people with personal shoppers? Think again. I was practically lassoed and hog-tied by one Yuriko Cranford in the Kenneth Cole store—but hey, if she calls me with a heads-up on sales, do I care? Ask for their cards, get their names, and send them flowers. They will let you know when new shipments come in. Trust me. This is how Lynn Wyatt does it.
BOTH MALLS ARE SOMEWHAT circular in shape, with vast parking lots in the center. But Prime has additional parking in the back, which allows for easier entry and departure at peak hours. Prime and Tanger also have free trolley systems to ferry shoppers from place to place. My favorite spot: behind the food court at Prime. But I guess now that I’ve told you about it, I’ll have to let it go.
The saddest truth?
EXPENSIVE GOODS ARE STILL expensive, even when they’re discounted. I liked the $800 Python pumps at the Cole Haan store more when they had been marked down to $500, but at that price, they still didn’t qualify as a steal. Ditto the Ferragamo bag marked down from $1,390 to $905 and the suede slacks at the Polo store marked down from $525 to $399. Maybe those sound like bargains to you, but I’m still waiting for the final markdowns.
A Grand Time
What if someone offered you $1,000 to go crazy at the outlets? That’s just what happened to me when my boss called with what, in my book, was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Here are my exceedingly personal, entirely capricious choices.
Black T-shirt, sweater, and overcoat at the Lacoste store: $345
Slow cooker at Pottery Barn: $99.99 ($50 less than retail and $50 less than at Target. Also available at Tanger’s Kitchen Collection for the same price.)
Two pillow cases at Pottery Barn: $15.98 ($7.99 each)
Five place mats at Pottery Barn: $29.95 ($5.99 each)
Two grass “Checkers chairs” from Crate & Barrel: $450 ($225 each)
Two lavender spindle soaps from L’Occitane: $7 (regularly $4.90 each)
Six stemless wine glasses at Crate & Barrel: $11.70 ($1.95 each)
Tote from Hartmann: $111 (regularly $185)
Four-person pack-away camping table at The Coleman store: $94.99
Leather jacket from Ferragamo: $559 (20 percent off)
Three dress shirts from Brooks Brothers: $154
Seersucker jacket from Brooks Brothers: $139 (regularly $239)