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W.Va. outlets brace for Prime competition

July 05, 1998

photo: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer

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Blue Ridge OutletsBy CLYDE FORD and AMY WALLAUER / Staff Writers

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Cindy Cline drives from her home in Fulton County, Pa., to the Blue Ridge Outlets in Martinsburg once or twice a year.

Even when the new Prime Outlets at Hagerstown open closer to her home, Cline said she probably will still travel to the Blue Ridge Outlets.

"I'll probably go to both," Cline said. "We just like coming down here."

When she next returns, at least four of the 49 stores listed on the Blue Ridge Outlet directory will be gone, according to store employees.

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Carter's Children's Wear, Fuller Brush, London Fog and Toy Liquidators, a Kay Bee toy store, are moving to the new Hagerstown outlet center and opening there on Aug. 7 or later.

Brian Lewbart, director of public relations for Prime Outlets, would not say if the Hagerstown center would have some of the same tenants as Blue Ridge, or whether any have been lured away from Martinsburg.

Prime Outlets is owned by Prime Retail, the largest owner and operator of outlet centers in the world, Lewbart said. The Hagerstown center is its 50th.

But a look at the merchant list released by Prime Outlets at Hagerstown and the directory at Blue Ridge Outlets in Martinsburg shows the two will have 11 of the same shops.

They are: Britches Great Outdoors, Dress Barn, Johnston and Murphy, Jones New York, Jones New York Country, Leggs-Hanes-Bali-Playtex, Nine West Outlet, Polo-Ralph Lauren, Royce Hosiery, Totes-Isotoner-Sunglass World and Van Heusen Direct.

Employees at nine of the stores said they are staying at Blue Ridge Outlets. Employees at Van Heusen Direct and the Polo store declined to comment and corporate representatives could not be reached for comment.

Jennifer Neal, an assistant manager at Johnston and Murphy, said her store at the Blue Ridge Outlets will remain open "for now."

"I think they're going to wait it out and see what happens," Neal said.

"That is all up in the air. It's all up to my company," said Amy Beegle, a manager at Jones New York in the Blue Ridge Outlets.

For 14 years, the outlet center in Martinsburg has been one-of-a-kind in the area, drawing customers from Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

The new outlet center opening this summer in Hagerstown eventually will have twice the number of stores as Blue Ridge and has some wondering if the competition will kill the Martinsburg stores.

"That's what we're debating," said Lisa Hollis, a manager at the Dress Barn in the Blue Ridge Outlets. "We're not sure. I think it depends on what the outlet does in terms of advertising and marketing."

Hollis will transfer to the new Hagerstown Dress Barn when it opens Aug. 7, but the Martinsburg shop will remain open. She said she believes the Martinsburg store will continue to do well.

Hollis said she believes many customers from the Washington-Baltimore area will stop at the Hagerstown outlet center first and then travel down to Martinsburg.

"When they travel that far, another 20- or 30-minute drive is nothing," Hollis said.

Tom Rice, general manager of Blue Ridge Outlets, said the outlet will continue to conduct aggressive marketing campaigns.

"I think only time will tell if there will be any effect on Blue Ridge," Rice said.

Blue Ridge opened in 1984 with four stores.

Rice said Blue Ridge customers generally come from within a 150-mile radius of Martinsburg.

"I wouldn't be a very good businessman if I wasn't concerned about competition all the time. My only answer to competition is to continue doing what we're doing and aggressively market it," Rice said.

"Our customers come here not just for the stores, but for the atmosphere, the fact that they're in historically restored buildings, that whole kind of laid-back way that we run Blue Ridge," Rice said.

Rice would not say if he's implementing any new strategies to lure more stores to Blue Ridge or to hold onto his customers.

"Am I doing things? Oh, yes. Am I going to tell you what they are? No. I know where my customers are, where they come from and I'm going to keep communicating with them," he said.

Rice wouldn't discuss Blue Ridge's annual sales.

"That is confidential information between my tenants and me," Rice said.

Peter Dufourny, owner of Pete's Sweets near the Martinsburg outlets, said he believes business will do fine.

"Some people think it's the end of the world and some people aren't worried about it," he said.

"Retail is always turning over. There's always stores coming and going," Dufourny said. "I think there's enough for everybody. People know it here and they like it. The people from the city will have two places to come to instead of one. There's a huge population in the Baltimore and Washington area to tap into."

Elizabeth Valentine, manager at Britches Great Outdoors, said the two Britches stores will be close together, but she thinks there are enough customers for both.

"We get a lot of people from the south as well as from the north and east," Valentine said.

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