Arundel Mills mall is awe-inspiring, overwhelming, vaguely disturbing and a bargain shopper's dizzying dream come true. Or, to put it another way, this 1.3-million-square-foot megaplex in Anne Arundel County encapsulates all that is both dazzling and distressing about modern commerce in America. But before we delve into all that, let's try to travel there first.
Assuming you choose to drive at a non-peak time, getting to Arundel Mills is easier than you might think. Though many Washingtonians, even some natives, seem puzzled by the exact location of Anne Arundel County (that's in Maryland, right??), traveling to the Mills Corp.'s latest mercantile masterpiece (its other local location is Virginia's Potomac Mills) is still a breeze. Once on 95 north, hop off at Route 100 east and take Exit 10A, which guides you directly to the mall. Even if you forget the exit number, no worries: There are signs on Route 100 that clearly point you in the right direction. It may take a while to find a parking space (on a Friday less than two weeks before Christmas I drove to three areas before locating a spot), but given the ease of the drive, you probably won't mind.
I walked into the mall via the Muvico Egyptian 24 theater entrance, which definitely set the tone for the Arundel Mills experience -- the exterior of this stadium-seating movie mecca is highlighted by several Egyptian-style columns that must be at least 30-feet tall and are marked with what appear to be hieroglyphics (though, as Billy Crystal pointed out in "When Harry Met Sally," they may just be an ancient comic strip about a character named Sphinxy). Upon setting foot inside, the aforementioned overwhelmed feeling smacked me in the face with the force of an anvil-filled shopping bag.
Everywhere there are people, bright colors -- so very bright -- neon decorations and stores, stores, stores! It's like being thrust into a postmodern hybrid of a Dr. Seuss book, a cartoon and an outlet mall, with some '80s-esque flourescent colors sprinkled in for good measure.
The design and store selection is very similar to the slightly larger Potomac Mills, though for some reason everything seems a little nicer. Perhaps that's because Arundel Mills, which opened its doors in November 2000, is newer and, therefore, shinier -- the floors and the benches literally twinkle.
Like its Virginia sister, Arundel Mills is organized into neighborhoods, five to be exact. Between each 'hood, shoppers pass through what can best be described as an exhibit: When passing from Neighborhoods 4 to 5, for instance, they walk through an area where huge, pastel-colored flies, butterflies and bees adorn the ceiling. In that same space, tired shoppers can relax by having a seat on a nearby oversized tulip or turtle while they listen to the faint, woodsy sounds of chirping and buzzing over the PA system.
. The Mills Corp. lets no millisecond pass without attempting to stimulate you, which might be a little disturbing at first -- perhaps this is what the company means when it refers to "the Mills Effect."
On the other hand, perhaps it's a reference to the buzz shoppers get from tracking down bargain after bargain. Despite all the bells and whistles, Arundel Mills is, at its essence, an outlet mall. And that means consumers can get great stuff at reduced prices, although the scale definitely tips to the quality side, especially if you're looking for clothes.
When I went in to Off Saks Fifth Avenue and found a pair of $80 pants for $40, I was pretty excited. But when I walked into the Banana Republic Factory Store, I nearly had a pleasure seizure. Most of the merchandise was comparable to what's sold in a regular Banana Republic, but complemented by delightful signs proclaiming "$10 off at the register" and "buy one get one free." It was the first time I'd ever shopped in a Banana Republic outlet and I was fairly certain I'd discovered clotheshorse heaven, though I doubt even God would sell this much great stuff for this cheap.
Of course, you can opt to shop at infinitely more places -- Burlington Coat Factory; Old Navy; Bed, Bath and Beyond; a Nine West outlet; a Gap outlet; a Mikasa Factory Store; Bass Pro Shops; Books-A-Million -- but one shopper can only take so much. (Although, as evidenced by the number of people I saw pushing carts overflowing with packages, that rule doesn't apply to everyone.)
A visit to Arundel Mills is not a drop-in-and-drop-out affair: It's an afternoon-long adventure and rightfully so. Though you may find the hyper, super-size environment a bit bizarre, the bottom line is this: You can walk out of the mall with a lot of exceptional merchandise without dreading next month's credit card bill.
-- Jen Chaney