Strolling past the Saks Off Fifth outlet, Dress Barn and a camera store in the vast corridors of the Potomac Mills discount mall in Dale City, Va., three college students from France smiled with anticipation as they spotted a shop that sold athletic wear.
When they emerged with their purchases, including the New York Yankees baseball caps that were high on their list, one student, Philippe D'Haucourt, said, "Now that we've seen the tourist sights, we can go home."
His quip held more than a kernel of truth. Potomac Mills and many other discount outlet centers have become so popular with foreign and American tourists that they are now bigger attractions than the Liberty Bell, the Jefferson Memorial, the Alamo and many other traditional tourist treasures.
Of the 17.2 million shoppers who spent $358 million last year at Potomac Mills, 30 miles south of Washington in Virginia's historic Prince William County, at least 4.5 million were tourists, according to a survey made by mall officials.
The travel industry defines a tourist as someone who travels at least 100 miles or stays in a hotel or motel overnight.
Under a somewhat looser definition, as many as 6 million of the visitors could be considered tourists, said Patrick McMahon, director of the Virginia Department of Tourism.
The gigantic enclosed mall, with its 225 shops, is far and away the most popular tourist destination in this tourism-rich state -- well ahead of Arlington National Cemetery, with 4 million total visitors a year; Colonial Williamsburg, with 2.5 million; and Mount Vernon, 10 miles or so distant, at 1 million.
The only attraction in the region that rivals Potomac Mills in drawing tourists is the Air and Space Museum on the Mall in Washington. It draws 8.4 million visitors a year, although many of those are from the surrounding region.
To be sure, many people combine shopping with visits to historic sites, amusement parks, beaches or family and friends. But many just want to shop, planning vacations solely around that passion.
And that is not unique to Virginia. From Maine to Hawaii, bargain hunters flock to discount outlets, turning what was once an obscure corner of retailing transacted in mostly out-of-the-way locales into a booming industry.
With sales at the 331 outlet centers in the United States projected to exceed $14 billion this year, up from $6.8 billion at 186 centers in 1990, outlets are the fastest-growing segment of the retail industry -- and, it turns out, one of the fastest-growing of the travel industry as well.
The trend includes Potomac Mills and 10 other discount megamalls that feature not just manufacturers' outlets, but also big discounters like Wal-Mart and Ikea and "off-price" stores like Marshall's that typically offer overstocked brand-name merchandise from a broad range of manufacturers and department stores.
Whatever their names, the outlets draw huge numbers of tourists.
In northeastern Philadelphia the 215-store Franklin Mills outlet, which opened in 1989, drew an estimated 17.8 million visitors last year, including almost 6 million tourists. That is four times the 1.5 million total visitors to the Liberty Bell, for decades the state's top tourist attraction.
In San Marcos, Texas, the estimated 4.2 million tourists last year at two outlet centers combined far exceeded the total of 2.9 million visitors drawn by the Alamo in San Antonio.
And Pigeon Forge, Tenn., a hamlet of fewer than 3,330 people with 200 outlet shops, drew 10 million visitors last year, a million more than visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park nearby, the nation's most heavily visited destination park.
George Ku Tours in New Castle, Pa., 55 miles north of Pittsburgh, runs three-day shopping tours to the Williamsburg Pottery Factory near Williamsburg, Va., with a stop at Potomac Mills. "We don't stop at Colonial Williamsburg, since this is an all-shopping tour," said Joan George, an owner of the family business. Buses sometimes return so loaded with packages, she added, that the toilet is used as a storeroom.
Even at Niagara Falls, N.Y., which has two big outlet malls, shopping often takes precedence over falling water. "You'd be surprised how many bus tours come here for shopping," a spokesman for the visitors' bureau, Tom Darro, said, "and couldn't care less about seeing the falls."
The Travel Industry Association of America recently said shopping was the most popular activity of vacationing Americans last year, and McMahon has an inkling of the reasons. "The only time many people have to shop," he said, "is when they're on vacation."
Shop 'n' golf
To keep tourists flowing in, outlet centers participate in package tours with nearby hotels, golf courses and casinos. In Washington the Gray Line tours feature a daily excursion to Potomac Mills, less than 45 minutes away.
Some conventional malls also draw millions of shoppers. But they tend to be in major urban centers, charge full price and cater overwhelmingly to local shoppers.
The Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., a behemoth with more than 400 stores, 50 restaurants, nine nightclubs and a roller coaster in a space that could fit seven Yankee Stadiums, is one of a kind. Last year it drew 40 million visitors, including at least 12 million tourists, more than Walt Disney World, the Grand Canyon and Graceland combined.
But outlet centers, even spick-and-span Potomac Mills, are usually no-frills places. And no developer today would dream of picking a spot for one without careful regard for tourists. It was not until about 1988, three years after Potomac Mills had opened in what was a largely wooded area, that tour buses and out-of-state cars made their presence felt.
"That's when we began an all-out push to be included in Virginia and Washington's familiarization tours for tour operators, travel agents and travel writers," said L. Kathy Pelino, director of tour and travel for Potomac Mills. That is also when developers who had not already done so began locating outlet centers with tourists in mind.
Yet for all the glass and chrome of the newer malls, the 300 outlet stores in restored factories and buildings in Reading, Pa., are thriving. Credited with being the first multitenant manufacturers' outlet center, Reading's outlets, which started to open in 1974, attract 8 million visitors a year, including millions of day trippers from the Philadelphia region, as well as hundreds of thousands who arrive on 10,000 tour buses.
Although outlet shops have been a godsend for Reading, some tourism officials regard them as a mixed blessing. They provide jobs and tax revenue, yes, but critics say they also contribute to sprawl, traffic jams and one-industry economies.
The economic effects are considerable. Potomac Mills provided $3.4 million in retail sales taxes in the 1995 fiscal year, or 20 percent of Prince William County's total sales tax, along with 2,400 jobs.
But Jerome L. McElroy, a professor of economics at St. Mary's College in Notre Dame, Ind., who has written widely on the economic effect of tourism, said the benefits of outlet malls and shopping centers were often exaggerated.
DTC "They basically deal in merchandise that is marked up, but to which only a small amount of local value is added, unlike, say, dollars spent touring historic grounds," McElroy said. Switching the emphasis from history to shopping, he said, will inevitably change the mix of visitors and risk eroding the character of a state's tourism appeal.
Almost all outlet centers belong to local and state tourism bureaus. Potomac Mills also belongs to Capital Region USA, a cooperative encompassing Virginia, Washington and Maryland that advertises in Europe.
For as the students from France who are visiting here demonstrate, not only American tourists love to shop. Two German exchange students arrived after a two-hour drive, ready to do some serious shopping.
"I have a large shopping list from my roommates for at least 10 pairs of Levis," said Melanie Roehm of Cologne. Her companion, Christel Orth of Frankfurt, said Germany's few outlet stores were so scattered that "you have to travel all over the country to visit them."
A United Airlines advertising campaign in Europe, intended to promote the carrier's hub at Dulles International Airport, features Potomac Mills prominently. In one advertisement asking "Why Washington?" the airline answered by listing Potomac Mills first, ahead of Capitol Hill and the Smithsonian Institution.
"Our foreign passengers love to shop," Milton Perry, a bus driver for the Gray Line tour to Potomac Mills, said. "They come here from all over, and when they go back to Washington they're loaded down."
Last year five of the 4,200 tour buses to Franklin Mills in Philadelphia were filled with Kuwaitis. Gurnee Mills in Illinois attracted groups from Ukraine and Tanzania.
Sawgrass Mills near Fort Lauderdale, Fla., which draws an estimated 5.7 million tourists among its 19 million visitors a year, is a magnet for Latin American visitors.
Speaking of their free-spending ways, Anne Lipscomb, vice president of marketing for Mills Corp., which owns Sawgrass and Potomac Mills, said, "I've never seen so many teen-agers with gold cards in my life."
If you go
Potomac Mills Mall is about 20 miles south of the Washington Beltway. From Interstate 95 southbound, take Exit 156 -- Dale City. There will be signs with mall directions. For more information, call (703) 643-1770.
Pub Date: 8/25/96