Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The New Outlet Mall: Be Wary

Cincinnati's traditional media are agog over tomorrow's grand opening of Cincinnati Premium Outlets (here's the Enquirer's coverage). The media coverage--almost at a frenzied pitch--interests me, largely because I'm in the midst of reading Ellen Ruppel Shell's new book, Cheap: the High Cost of Discount Culture. I suspect that in the next few months, I'll succumb to the temptation and visit the new outlet mall. But Ruppel Shell's chapter on outlet malls ("The Outlet Gambit") should be required reading for anyone who can't wait to grab the kids, hop in the car, and drive out to Monroe.

Ruppel Shell argues forcibly that when we go to the outlet malls, we're not really getting the deal we think we are. There's two reasons for this. First, the outlets tend to use exaggerated reference prices to convince us we're getting a better bargain than we really are. (You know what I'm talking about: those price tags that say something like, "Normally: $1,000, Your Price: $1.50.) Second (and perhaps more nefarious), the merchandise offered at an outlet often isn't the same as what's offered in a department store. Does the price on a bag at the Coach outlet seem great? Sure. But that same bag is probably not offered at a regular Coach store. In fact, Ruppel Shell tells us, about eighty percent of the stuff at Coach outlets is lower quality merchandise manufactured specifically for the outlet store.

Perhaps most interesting is Ruppel Shell's discussion of the geographic placement of outlet malls. They always seem to be a not insignificant distance from urban areas. Doesn't it strike anyone else as a bit cheeky that a shopping center outside the I-275 belt--more than a half-hour's drive from downtown--appropriates the name "Cincinnati"? This is all no accident, but instead helps the outlet perpetuate a certain atmosphere:
Generally [the location of an outlet mall] 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. . . . But 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. . . . In a very real sense, outlets are the anticonvenience 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 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. . . . 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.
(Cheap, p. 91.) I'm not suggesting that you shouldn't go to the outlet mall. I'm just saying that when you do, go with your eyes open.

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