With more than 200 outlet centres across the US, cost-conscious shoppers are travelling further to bag a bargain on big brands.
When it comes to travel, we’re all searching for something. You might visit Paris for its romantic allure; Rome for its art, food and culture; or Australia for its ancient outback and world-heritage Great Barrier Reef.
But for a new breed of holidaymaker, it’s not so much the sightseeing that motivates them, it’s the shopping.
Armed with little more than an airline ticket, a credit card and a half-empty suit case, their sole intention is to travel the world in search of a bargain.
Shopping and travel have always been good bedfellows, but it’s now so crucial to the holiday experience that specialist trips, tours and hotels even offer the chance to combine retail with repose.
And it’s those meccas of retail therapy – outlet centres – that have become a destination in their own right.
In the United States alone, outlet malls are booming with more than 200 mega malls offering savings of up to 70 per cent on coveted brands like Coach, Michael Kors, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Super Dry and Levi’s to name a few.
It’s a seductive experience made even more attractive by vouchers, daily discounts and, in some states, tax-free shopping on clothes and footwear.
Many of the biggest and most luxurious outlet centres in the country – including the huge high-end Woodbury Common – are bastions of the Simon Property Group empire.
The company has a presence in 37 US states, with its Premium Outlets brand so omnipresent that it almost blankets the country from coast to coast. And it’s far from finished.
Outlet centres these days are more like villages, with restaurants and cafes nestled alongside high-end brands.
After recently unveiling a new outlet centre at Denver, Colorado, Simon recently joined forces with rival developer, Macerich, to build a massive new outlet centre about 17km from LAX, close to Long Beach.
The Los Angeles Premium Outlets will open late in 2021, becoming the second major outlet centre in the region alongside Citadel Outlets, owned and operated by the Craig Realty Group.
Because outlet centres are usually located miles from major city centres, shopping there has become a day-long affair. Many bargain-hunting holidaymakers even stay at nearby hotels just to avoid the commute.
Locating these malls away from major city centres is a deliberate tactic of developers. Not only is it cheaper to develop land outside the major cities, but they also have a captive audience of shoppers.
Despite their remote locations, you’ll find most major outlet centres are still fairly easy to get to, thanks to free daily shuttles, organised tours and dedicated hire cars or vans for shopping groups.
Many outlet centres in the US are these days more like villages, with restaurants, cafes, entertainment and concierge services nestled alongside stores.
Where food was once little more than an afterthought, food is now a crucial part of the mix, designed to satisfy and sustain battle weary shoppers.
Know Before You Go
Just like any other holiday, shopping trips require a little planning and a lot of stamina. Be sure to arrive with an empty wheelie bag and an open wallet if you want to make the most of your day-long treasure hunt.
The key to bagging a real bargain is knowing the discounts that are on offer on a particular day before you visit – download the app or check their website for VIP deals. Be sure to also collect a savings passport on arrival for further discounts.
Some stores give you discounts for spending over a certain amount, while others reduce the price if you pay with a certain card, like Mastercard.
To be fair, you will often find better bargains at downtown stores like Century21, TJ Maxx and even Macy’s, particularly when it comes to men’s fashion.
The steepest savings at outlet centres are often on high-end luxury brands, particularly women’s fashion and homewares. So if it’s designer bed sheets you’re after or a designer handbag or shoes, and you have some cash to splash, outlet shopping will probably be right up your alley.
Remember also that weekends are the busiest, so visit mid-week if possible and try to get there first thing to avoid the crush.
There’s really too many outlet centres to mention in one blog, but here are a few of our favourites across the United States.
Citadel Outlets, Los Angeles
The sprawling 700,000 square foot Citadel Outlets – housed behind a massive fortress wall on the site of an old tyre company – is the only major outlet centre in Los Angeles County (for the time being anyway).
Located about 15 minutes south-east of downtown LA, it’s the home of affordable luxury (and my favourite US outlet centre) with more than 130 major brands constantly on sale.
You’ll find outlet stores for brands like Vans, Nike, Quicksilver, GAP, H&M, Levi’s, SuperDry, Benton, Tommy Hilfiger, Coach and Ann Taylor among others. Be sure to collect your Citadel Savings Card from the Customer Service Center to receive daily discounts on some brands.
The food offerings are hit and miss, focusing more on quick-serve takeaway eateries. The only major dine-in restaurant is Ruby’s Diner, and there’s a Starbucks as well.
There’s a red carpet VIP lounge where elite shoppers and small groups can take a break from shopping in air-conditioned comfort. The lounge has wi-fi, snacks, beverages, toiletries and a concierge service.
There’s also an on-site international shipping service through the US Postal service if you do buy too much and want to ship it home in advance.
Getting to Citadel is relatively easy. If you’re staying in Hollywood or downtown LA, take the free shuttle from Bay 7 at Union Station. Check the daily timetable so that you’re not waiting too long.
There’s also a shuttle from seven Anaheim hotels, including Paradise Pier at the Disneyland Resort and the Hyatt Regency Orange County, among others.
There’s even a Citadel tour aimed at visitors with a late night LAX departure. Karmel Shuttle Service will pick you up after you check out of your hotel and drop you at LAX later that night. That gives you all day to shop, including all day access to the VIP lounge at Citadel and secure luggage storage.
San Francisco Premium Outlets
Location gripes aside, this is a beautiful open-air outlet centre with a good selection of high-end luxury brands as well as popular middle-of-the-road labels. You’ll find Kate Spade, J.Crew, Le Creuset, Vans, Neiman Marcus Last Call and Bloomingdales, among others.
The number one complaint people have here involves parking. There’s just not enough of it, so come early if you’re arriving by car.
The second issue is how to get there if you don’t have a car. A GrayLine shuttle departs from 478 Post St in downtown San Francisco at 9am most days and returns around 4pm. But at $25 one way and $40 return, it’s not cheap.
If you’d rather save a few dollars, take the BART to Dublin/Pleasanton station and then either get a taxi or an Uber to the centre. It’s too far to walk.
Waikele Premium Outlets, Hawaii
Stacked with popular brands like Banana Republic, Coach, Guess, Tommy Bahama, Tommy Hilfiger and True Religion, there’s certain to be something for everyone here.
There is a food court in the centre of the mall but there are also shops and hidden food trucks outside the main entrance.
Getting here from Waikiki is relatively easy. Just take the Roberts Hawaii Waikiki Shuttle which costs US$18 or around A$25 for a round trip.
Las Vegas Premium Outlets, North & South
When it comes to outlet shopping in Sin City, you are truly spoiled for choice. You’ll find two huge shopping outlets – Las Vegas Premium Outlets North and Las Premium Outlets South – each boasting about 150 different stores.
The Fashion Outlets at Primm, 25 minutes south of downtown Las Vegas, are also a good day trip.
The north outlet is a sprawling 540,000-square-foot shopping mall located at Grand Central Parkway close to the Strip. It has more luxury brands (All Saints, Bally, Burberry, Diesel), is mostly outdoors, and receives more visitors each year.
The south outlet, located about 4 km south of downtown, on Las Vegas Boulevard, also packs a punch with many of the same big brands (Adidas, Coach, Converse, Levis, Marc Jacobs) but has a more affordable range. It’s also an indoor mall.
You’ll also find some good deals at Last Call by Neiman Marcus and Saks OFF 5th.
Las Vegas Premium Outlets South Where: 7400 South Las Vegas Boulevard. Hours: 10am-9pm Monday to Saturday, 10am-8pm Sunday.
Las Vegas Premium Outlets North Where: 875 South Grand Central Parkway. Hours: 9am-10pm Monday-Saturday, 9am-8pm Sunday.
Desert Hills Premium Outlets, Palm Springs
This open-air centre, with its stucco and Spanish-tile roofs, already houses the largest collection of luxury brands in California, with 180 brand names including Alexander McQueen, Burberry, Coach, Michael Kors, Prada, Roberto Cavalli, Saint Laurent Paris and Tom Ford found here.
As part of a major expansion of the East Village, the centre will welcome five new world-class brands in coming months including British designer Paul Smith and Karl Lagerfeld Paris.
The new area will include a central fireplace (ideal in winter) and much needed shade structures to protect visitors from the blazing desert sun. There’ll also be new seating areas.
The dining options are quite broad with a dozen bistros and numerous restaurants, as well as a food court that includes Blaze Pizza, Five Guys Burgers & Fries and Jody Maroni’s Sausage Kingdom.
You can book a shuttle from Palm Springs costing around US$70 return, which, depending how many there are in your group, is still cheaper than a taxi.
There are cheaper bus and train options from Palm Springs or Los Angeles that are worth exploring as well.
Grand Prairie Premium Outlets, Dallas
Located about 20 minutes south of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), there are more than 110 specialty brands including Coach, Calvin Klien, J Crew, Kate Spade, Levi’s, Oakley and more offering 25 per cent to 65 per cent off everyday prices.
The only downside is that public transport from DFW and downtown Dallas to Grand Prairie is not that great, so a taxi or an Uber might be the best bet, or even a car service.
International shoppers can also receive refunds on sales tax in Texas within 30 days of departing the United States. So keep your receipts and check to see if you are eligible for a refund.
Chicago Premium Outlets
Located about 45 minutes west of downtown Chicago, this open-air, village-style outlet centre has around 120 major brands including Kenneth Cole, Lacoste, Nike, Ann Taylor, Gap and others.
It takes a good hour on the train from downtown Chicago. Just take the Metra Rail from Union Station to Aurora Station and Pace bus 533 to the centre. The centre is about six blocks from the station
If you’d prefer to travel in style, check out Windy City Limousine. They can collect you from your hotel and you can be shopping within an hour.
Woodbury Common Premium Outlets, New York
So if you are visiting in winter, rug up and come prepared because it’s an open-air village and you’ll be exposed to the elements as you trek between stores.
The 910,000-square-foot property, with its labyrinthine layout, is split into five colour-coded sections named after key parts of upstate New York, such as Hudson and Hamptons.
The complex, one of the largest in the country with 13 million visitors a year, is skewed to the luxury end of the scale, and is dominated by brands like Gucci, Jimmy Choo, Coach, AllSaints, Saks Fifth Avenue, Crabtree & Evelyn and Christian Dior.
My travel companion, who lives in Manhattan, was blown away by the savings on many luxury brands, and spent most of the day in a shopping coma. She was in the market for Frette bed linen worth about $1,500: she got it for around $700. Expensive, but a saving all the same.
For me and my simple tastes, however, it was a somewhat underwhelming experience. Many of the deals on men’s fashion meant you had to purchase two or more of the same item to make a saving.
The sad truth is I could have pocketed better savings had I just shopped in New York City.
Macy’s, for instance, is constantly on sale and the discounts were even more appealing given it was Presidents Day when I visited.
I discovered later that there’s also a whole strip of factory outlet stores at Fulton Street in Brooklyn, with brands like Banana Republic, H&M, GAP, Old Navy, Nike, Century 21, Nordstrom Rack and TJ Maxx significantly marked reduced.
Thankfully, discounted designer goods aren’t the only things to be had at Woodbury Common.
The food options are quite impressive with major brands like Shake Shack, Yo Sushi!, Magnolia Bakery and the organic bakery Le Pain Quotidien all found on site.
There’s also a large market hall (pictured) with cafes and quick food options. On select weekends throughout the year, local food trucks like Luke’s Lobster, The Empanada Guy and Farmer’s and Chef’s also make pit stops.
Getting to Woodbury Common is hassle free with daily return shuttle buses departing from various Manhattan locations every day. The trip takes about 1.5 hours.
If you want to save the trouble of waiting for the bus in midtown, I highly recommend the private tour company Manhattan Transfer Tours. For little more than the cost of the bus, you travel to and from Woodbury Common in a private van with a helpful driver.
It’s ideal for small groups, and they’ll pick you up from your hotel or home and drop you back in the afternoon. They’ll also look after your shopping while you continue browsing.
(Sometimes they’ll collect one or two others, it just depends how many of you are travelling).
If you want to avoid the crowds, the best days to visit Woodbury Common are Tuesday and Wednesday, when the mall is generally much quieter and you can shop at your leisure.
The Mills at Jersey Gardens, New Jersey
The Mills Jersey Gardens is everything that Woodbury Common is not.
It’s a lot closer to midtown Manhattan (just 45 minutes on a good day); it’s an indoor mall not outdoor; it has a lot more middle market brands rather than high end brands; and you pay less tax.
Because it’s across the Hudson River in New Jersey, there’s no sales tax on clothes or footwear on purchases under $110. It’s a small saving, but it’s a saving nonetheless.
When you arrive at Jersey Gardens, visit the Concierge Desk for your $5 discount book that opens the door to even further savings.
The Mills have regular sales with discounts of 10 to 30 per cent, as well as deals like buy one get one half price, or buy two and get the third for $1.
There’s also a food court on site with around 17 fast food dining options.
To get there, take the 111 or the 115 bus from the Port Authority Bus Terminal (41st St and 8th Ave) in Manhattan.
Wrentham Village Premium Outlets, Boston
You’ll find many of the same big brands that are found on Boston’s Newbury Street or in high-end shopping malls like Chestnut Hill and Natick Mall, just with better price tags.
The selection is wide and includes fashion and homewares, electronics and jewellery. There’s also a food court and several restaurants to choose from when you’re looking for a break from the shopping.
One of the easiest ways to get to Wrentham Village is by tour bus. You’ll also get a complimentary coupon book with your ticket for extra savings.
You can also take the train from South Station or Back Bay Station in Boston to Franklin Station. You’ll need to then get a taxi to Wrentham Village, which is about 6km away.
Empire Outlets, Staten Island NYC
Empire Outlets, New York City’s first outlet mall, is finally expected to open in April 2019 at the St George Ferry Terminal at Staten Island, with more than 100 brand names like Old Navy, GAP, Banana Republic, Nordstrom Rack and H&M all under one roof. However, the opening has already been pushed back four times since it was announced in 2012, so it’s anyone’s guess whether this place will open anytime soon.
Los Angeles Premium Outlets
Due to open in 2021, Los Angeles Premium Outlets will be located north of Long Beach at Carson, just 20 minutes from busy LAX. The new outlet centre is likely to follow the same approach of other Premium Outlets run by the Simon Property Group with a mix of high-end, luxury retail brands alongside food and lifestyle options for shoppers.
Know Your Limits
We all know how strict airlines can be when it comes to the size, weight and the number of bags we can check, so be sure you know your limits before you fly or all those shopping discounts could be for nothing. If you're flying economy or premium economy with Qantas, you're entitled to two pieces of checked luggage weighing up to 23kg. Qantas Club members, Silver and Gold Qantas Frequent Flyers and Business and First customers are entitled to three bags. However, be sure to check your entitlement online against your booking. If you're going to the US just to shop, Hawaiian Airlines might be your new best friend. It allows two 32kg bags for each per person travelling economy to Hawaii/North America from Australia and New Zealand.
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