With coupons and concierge services, area malls look to woo international shoppers

Craig Shearman was at the Queenstown Premium Outlets with his mother last month when something stopped him in his tracks: A loudspeaker announcement in Mandarin.

“This is an area that’s known for fishing, goose hunting and taking your boat out on the Chesapeake Bay,” said Shearman, vice president of government affairs for the National Retail Federation. “It’s not really a place where you expect Chinese travelers to buy haute couture.”

But that seems to be quickly changing. As international travel picks up, more and more outlet malls and shopping centers in the Washington area say they’ve seen an increase in the number of foreign travelers — mainly from China and Brazil, but also from the Middle East and Russia — who are looking to stock up on American clothing.

“We have people who fly into Dulles [International Airport] and go straight to the Leesburg Corner Premium Outlets,” said Michele Rothstein, senior vice president of marketing at Simon’s Premium Outlets. “It can literally be their first stop in the United States, so we want them to feel welcome.”

The company has begun translating its brochures into five languages, including Mandarin and Japanese, and doling out international sizing charts to customers. There are special discounts for foreign groups, as well as credit card machines that accept international payments. Lockers are available to travelers who stop for last-minute shopping excursions on their way to the airport.

“And of course some people buy luggage here and fill it up,” Rothstein said. “That’s pretty common, too.”

Wooing international travelers — many of whom come with deep pockets and the expectation of spending thousands of dollars — has become more important in recent years as American customers continue to keep a tight grip on their wallets. Shearman says the typical foreign shopper spends about $4,000 a person, while travelers from China are likely to spend $6,000.

“Chinese customers, in particular, are spending about 50 percent more than the average [foreign shopper],” Shearman said. “That has certainly helped make up for some of the slowness that we’re still seeing in the economy.”

Last year, international tourists spent a record $168.1 billion in the United States — 10 percent more than they did the year before — according to data from the Commerce Department. The number of tourists from India, China and Brazil is expected to rise steadily in coming years.

“There definitely is growth,” said Elina Kazan, a spokeswoman for Macy’s, adding that the Macy’s in downtown Washington offers 10 percent discounts to foreign shoppers who show their passports. “And we’re finding that many international travelers are buying products and brands that are distinctly American: Tommy Hilfiger, Levi’s, Clinique.”

At the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner, employees routinely set up private shopping trips for international guests. Stores such as Neiman Marcus at the Tysons Galleria accommodate before- and after-hours requests, and a valet service is available to help guests corral their purchases.

“Some of our guests spend quite a bit of money in the Galleria, so our bellmen will go up to the stores, pick up their clothing and deliver it to their rooms,” said Iman Butler, the hotel’s marketing director.“We also get annual visits from families, particularly during the holiday season, who want to do all of their shopping here.”

Travel industry analysts say the impact of foreign shopping may become even more pronounced in coming months if Congress passes the Jobs Originated through Launching Travel Act. The bill, introduced in Congress earlier this year, would require that wait times for tourist visas be reduced to less than 10 days.

“A couple of years ago, it could take four months to get an interview for a visa,” Shearman said. “Now it’s two days in Beijing, seven days in Mumbai, but it could be much longer in smaller cities. The problem is that it’s not necessarily consistent.”

The influx of international shoppers at the Queenstown and Leesburg Premium Outlets is no accident. The growth is the result of years of careful planning and observation, Rothstein said, adding that company representatives have been making annual trips to China to meet with tour companies for nearly a decade.

“Travelers from other countries are very prepared when they come here,” she said. “It’s not like they get here and say, ‘Hmm, what are we going to do this afternoon?’ and stumble into one of our malls. They know exactly what their schedule is going to be from the beginning.”

Rothstein said the company keeps an eye on flight routes in and out of the region’s international airports and keeps abreast of travel trends and exchange rates.

“We never just focus on one country,” Rothstein said. “You never know — the exchange rate can become more favorable in a particular country, and we’ll see a lot more travelers from there. It just sort of fluctuates.”

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.
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