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Prime Outlets attract 1.6 million shoppers in 5 months

February 25, 1999

Prime OutletsBy KERRY LYNN FRALEY / Staff Writer

photo: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer




It's Thursday, middle of the afternoon, cold enough that you can see your breath and snowing lightly.

Still, there are plenty of cars in the parking lot at the village-style Prime Outlets at Hagerstown. Families with baby strollers, couples, groups of friends and lone shoppers quickly make their way under the covered walkways from store to store.

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The center, which opened in August, has the right name-brand stores, good prices and a convenient location, said a sampling of the shoppers, who said they don't mind braving a little weather in the pursuit of bargains.

The mix has proven magic for the still-growing shopping mecca, which is gearing up to break ground for a third phase in March or April, said assistant general manager/marketing director Alice Rosen.

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Nestled at the intersection of Interstate 70 and Sharpsburg Pike, it has attracted more than 1.6 million shoppers in its first five months, Rosen said.

According to recent market research, an estimated 40 percent of those shoppers came from the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore areas, she said.

The 1.6 million figure, while incredible, is believable, said Ben Hart, executive director of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"I have no reason to doubt the number," said Hart, who said the center uses a formula to make the estimation based on data from its electronic car-counting system.

The tourism bureau is probably getting more inquiries about Prime Outlets than any other site in Washington County, he said.

"By far, it's the biggest tourist attraction in the area," Hart said.

After drawing an estimated 452,000 shoppers over the holiday season, the Hagerstown outlets braced for a post-season sales lull in January and February, Rosen said.

Still, while sales have taken the expected downturn, the 77-store center reached its half-year mark ahead of expectations, she said.

Prime Outlets, one of 50 outlet center projects owned by Baltimore-based Prime Retail, has been leasing space at an unprecedented rate, Rosen said.

The 100,000-square-foot second phase was already under construction when the 218,000-square-foot first phase opened with 55 stores, she said.

The second phase, which opened Nov. 22, brought the number of stores to 75.

Only five storefronts were empty, though two had tenants planning springtime openings - A Children Place, which opened this month, and Stride Rite Family Footwear Outlet, set to open in March, Rosen said.

Two more have since been leased, but the tenants haven't been announced yet, she said.

The third phase will add 25 to 30 stores and open in time for the holiday season, Rosen said.

People aren't only coming to Prime Outlets, they're buying, said Laura Dawson, manager of totes Isotoner Sunglass World, which opened about a week and a half before the center's Aug. 7 grand opening.

Sales are above what they were when the store was at Blue Ridge Outlets in Martinsburg, W.Va., Dawson said.

They're also well over what the company projected and lead all of its stores in the Mid-Atlantic region, including both enclosed and open mall locations, she said.

"It's just fantastic traffic. Volume is just unbelievable," said Dawson, who admits she feared the fresh-air design of the mall might keep shoppers away in the winter months.

Holiday season sales at G.H. Bass, which opened in August, were almost double what the company projected and are still relatively strong, said store manager Sheila McKenrick.

"Right now, it's slower. But it's traditionally a slow time in retail," McKenrick said.

Weekends are much busier than weekdays and heavy with out-of-towners, especially from the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore areas, who devote the day to shopping and tend to buy in bulk, she said.

Having to walk outside to go from store to store isn't a detriment, even when the weather is frosty, said David Watson and Michael Johnson, who came up from Washington, D.C., to do some shopping.

Both said they had been to the outlet mall about eight times.

"The stores are good. They're cheaper than any other outlet. And it's convenient," said Watson, 20, who likes the fact the outlet center is right off I-70.

"They're better stores than where we're from," said Johnson, 23, whose favorites are the Gap, Britches, Nike and Polo outlets.

It was the second trip to Prime Outlets for Cindy Swanson, of Laurel, Md., who came with her aunt, Ann Law, and two children to shop the Carter's and OshKosh B'Gosh outlets.

An avid outlet shopper, Swanson, 40, said she likes Prime Outlet's design because you don't have to drive from building to building.

It's also convenient to stop in on the way to or from visiting her parents, who live in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., she said. And daughter Maggie, 2, loves the play area.

Prime Outlets' popularity hasn't hurt business for Valley Mall in Hagerstown, in part because they're each going for a different core market, said Valley Mall General Manager Bill Lynn.

"Our main concern is the people of Hagerstown and Washington County," Lynn said.

The tourist traffic the outlet mall attracts to Washington County can only help the mall, in the midst of a major expansion that will include a new 16-screen theater, a food court and additional stores, he said.

"We have welcomed Prime to the area with open arms," Lynn said. "The more you have the better. It makes it more a destination."

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