By  on August 1, 2011

Outlet centers are in.

Their everybody-loves-a-bargain proposition is resonating with recession-weary consumers who want the biggest bang for their diminishing buck. But shoppers aren’t simply looking for low prices — they want the creature comforts and services of full-price stores. As a result, outlet centers are obliging with better-designed stores and personalized service.

“In our market, people want value but they also want the personal attention,” said Myra Williams, vice president of leasing at Silver Sands Factory Stores in Destin, Fla. “We see a shift in [the design of stores] as well. Outlet center concepts are being reimagined. It’s no longer the warehouse-style shopping experience of the past. It’s a close interpretation of the full-price stores.”

Silver Sands, which features Saks Fifth Avenue’s Off Fifth, Michael Kors, Swarovski and Juicy Couture among its tenants, is consistently ranked among the top 20 outlet centers in the U.S., Williams said. Over the past few months, seven stores have opened at Silver Sands, including White House|Black Market, DKNY Company Store, Tumi, Bare Escentuals, Loft Outlet, Merrell and Esprit.

Williams said outlet malls have been a sweet spot for many retailers. “High-end retailers are seeing the power of this niche market and the value of this industry,” she said. “Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus have been expanding outlet stores at six times the rate of their full-price stores.”

According to a survey by Value Retail News, average sales per square foot at outlet centers were $331 last year. Growth in outlet center sales productivity has outpaced that of malls by an average of 91 basis points since 1995, VRN said.

Retailers are investing in their outlet units rather than treating them like the afterthoughts they were in the past. At Silver Sands, Polo Ralph Lauren Factory Store recently moved to a new location with 50 percent more space, built with high-end materials and elevated fixtures and lighting.

Brands are lavishing more attention on their outlet stores. Bare Escentuals’ customized products bring the expectation of personal service. The brand stepped up its staffing at Silver Sands, adding more salespeople on the floor. Off Fifth’s recent men’s sale had a personal touch — consumers could schedule an appointment with a sales associate prior to the sale. Any merchandise shoppers chose would be held for them until the sale began.

At Legends Outlets Kansas City, personal service came in the form of a fashion event on Saturday and Sunday. There were free consultations by Style for Hire Kansas City, a team of stylists trained by Stacy London, star of TLC’s “What Not to Wear.” Stylists posited advice to consumers inside a pink tent. There was a runway show of fall looks on the center’s sidewalks and the chance to win a trip for four to New York’s Fashion’s Night Out in September. Legends Outlets calls its approach “high-style, high-value shopping.”

As demand grows, outlet stores will continue to morph, adopting features of full-priced stores. Already, outlets are moving closer in proximity to regional malls, whereas they once kept their distance. Bergen Town Center, a hybrid mall in Paramus, N.J., with Nordstrom Rack, Last Call Studio by Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s, is within a few miles of the stores’ full-priced siblings. “Having a mall nearby is not such a deterrent anymore,” Williams said, adding that retailers are loosening up in other respects, too. “There’s less sensitivity to using designer names, which was once verboten” in outlet center marketing and advertising.

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