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How Outlet Malls Have Convinced Shoppers into Thinking They're Getting a Sweet Deal

Are America's 55 million outlet shoppers scoring great deals on expensive brandname products, or getting less than they're bargaining for?

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About 55 million Americans shop in at least one of the nation's roughly three hundred outlet centers every year. Stretched over five years, that number adds up to nearly every man, woman, and child in the country. Even more astonishing is the number of miles chalked up in this annual pilgrimage. The total distance that Americans travel to outlet malls each year equals 440,000 circumnavigations of the globe. If that number seems a little abstract, consider this: The distance to the moon is roughly equal to 10 trips around the globe. That is, we make 44,000 moon launches' worth of outlet visits each year.

People travel celestial distances to outlet malls because until recently outlet malls were located celestial distances from people. On the surface this makes no sense; full-price "regional" malls are always situated with regard to demographics gauging the buying power and density of surrounding communities. And as a rule investors won't put money into malls without the requisite "threshold population densities" that all but ensure sales. Nor will builders build them. But outlet malls are different. Resolute in their remoteness, they stand secure that, like Muhammad and the mountain, the customers will come to them. Freed from the need to offer convenience, outlet malls are plopped down with what appears to be wild abandon. Of course that is an illusion: They are almost always located off a busy byway and, whenever possible, between two or more population centers. Generally this is a long drive from any particular population center -- 25 to 100 miles outside the metropolitan shadows, where real estate is cheap and the tax incentives sweet. In fact, until recently manufacturers preferred and sometimes even required outlet malls to locate far enough away from their department store rivals to avoid angering full-price retailers.

The remote location of outlets is not merely a defensive, cost-saving maneuver. It is also a deliberate strategy. In the public mind, convenience is a trade-off for price, and price is traded off for convenience. Inconvenience connotes cheap, while convenience connotes pricey. This is why restaurant valets can get away with charging $20 to park your Honda on the street and why "convenience" stores can charge $3 for a can of condensed chicken noodle soup. In a very real sense, outlets are the anti-convenience store. Visiting the outlets demands an investment in time, deliberation, and energy beyond what we invest in most other leisure activities. And because the effort required to reach and shop at them is substantial, even extraordinary, the experience of going to the outlet is elevated in our minds to "special occasion" status. A trip to the outlet mall is not passive, not simply a matter of popping in to pick up a few things. We have to work to get there, piling up hefty "sunk costs." All that time! All that gas! "I gave up my entire Sunday afternoon and even missed the game to come here!" Psychologically speaking, all this and more must be repaid in the form of purchases made. In making that long trip we are actually engaged in a transfer of power away from ourselves to the outlet itself. The mall has extracted a price, and in demanding repayment, we are in fact taxing ourselves. Our expectations are raised at the same time that our guard is lowered, and in making this bargain we are willing to forgo many things that we once demanded from a satisfying shopping experience: variety, serendipity, aspiration -- and fun.

Au Bonheur des Dames , detailing the rise of a fictional department store in nineteenth-century Paris, Emile Zola painstakingly describes the mostly female clientele swooning over the store's luxurious settings: "all the velvets, black, white, colored, interwoven with silk or satin, scooping out with their shifting marks a motionless lake on which reflections of sky and landscape seemed to dance." Few if any shopping centers today can boast of velvet lakes, but many strive to offer at least the impression of luxury: soaring atriums, fashion shows, valet parking, a jazz band or high school choir performing on Sunday afternoon. The purpose of this embellishment is to seduce clients, to lure them in and set them up for the sale.

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