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Outlet Bound: Look, Ma, No Tax!

By Annie Groer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 28, 2007

I don't do beaches. Too much icky sand lodging in inconvenient places, too much salt water wrecking already-problematic hair.

But a bracing autumnal jaunt to a 1.8-mile stretch of Rehoboth Beach highway boasting some 140 tax-free outlet stores? Be still, my heart.

Though usually a solo shopper, I required a co-conspirator for this trip: PR maven Toni Lee Aluisi, who's spent much of her life (and income) chasing bargains. She's hilarious, roughly my size and given to saying things like, "Take that horrible thing off right now."

Many of the stores, in clusters of strip malls that line both sides of Route 1, are part of Tanger Outlets and tilt heavily toward wearables, edibles and home goods. Many offer coupons and special sales. Some, but not all, of the merchandise is wonderful, as a number of companies with high-end retail lines produce low-end outlet offerings.

And yet, and yet . . . the lure of the real deal is powerful indeed.

Following Groer's Law of Great European Cathedrals, we hit a representative sampling to establish a sense of place. How many purveyors of cheap pleather platform boots did I really have to examine? Surely one outlet filled with overscented items evoking taxicab deodorizer is olfactory torture enough.

Such a strategy provides quality time for the occasional Notre Dame of discount shops, and for me it was the QVC Outlet in Lighthouse Plaza (home, also, to a Hair Cuttery if you're multi-tasking). Though not a part of Tangerland, QVC is the final resting place for a jumbled mix of Gladys Goose holiday sweaters, small toys in huge boxes, odd bits of furniture, Joan Rivers jewelry and tons of seasonal tchotchkes rejected by millions of shopaholic insomniacs. But more about that later.

In 12 hours of store-hopping, the eavesdropping proved almost as good as the shopping.

"Do these make me look fat?" asked a patron of Chico's -- a fave among middle-aged women with big butts (my demographic, alas) -- trying on $4.99 shorts. Honey, if ya gotta ask . . .

At Christmas Tree Hill, we saluted whatever display genius put the "Jesus Is the Reason for the Season" tote bags next to those proclaiming "No Outfit Is Complete Without Cat Hair." We were tempted by $1.99 flickering faux votive LED lights until we saw the checkout line. Those same faux-tives were $2.49 at Pfaltzgraff, reminding us to comparison shop.

"Oh, I have never worn Rockports," confessed an elegant, silver-haired woman, size 10 narrow, in the eponymous sensible-shoe store. "That's like never having chocolate before," replied a sales kid 50 years her junior, seizing the mercantile moment.

Had she wanted clogs, Aeropostale was practically giving them away at $3.99, down from $40.

At Polo Ralph Lauren (pronounced LAW-ren, not Law-REN, people) the absolute best thing was the guy in flaming orange corduroy pants embroidered with multicolored greyhounds. So! Totally! Fierce!

" What are we looking for, actually?" he asked his leggy blond companion. "The matching jacket?" I thought, guffawing to myself.

Frugal fashionistas love Rack Room Shoes, where knockoff Tory Burch medallion flats were $14.99. "Coach makes one like that, too," a young woman mused to her four friends. "For this price, who cares? Under cute pants, who will know?"

At Lenox, Ted Petty and John Pazourek of Baltimore zipped through their 39-name gift list, one vase and platter at a time. Petty's favorite purchase was an $8.44 ceramic chicken, down from $37.50. "This is going on the dining room table as a conversation piece," he crowed, while John Genoa, also of Charm City, had another idea for his: "I'll give it to someone I don't like."

The VF Outlet is among the largest stores in any of the three Tanger clusters (Seaside, Bayside and Midway). It had to be, given the range of stuff: $10 irregular Lee jeans; half-price Redskins hoodies for $22; a four-pack of Gerber onesies, $6.50, down from $13. Bras come in sizes 32A to 48DDD. Enough said.

Toni invoked her first veto at Tiger Lili, a tiny temple of glitz and bling that is not an outlet, but one of three branches of a local boutique. As I ogled a $55 quilted, metallic, hot pink vinyl bag, she hissed, "Put it back." And I did.

Seriously pricey purses littered Coach, where cousins Barbara Artis and Diana Good of Baltimore examined the merch. Some 25 of their relatives had met up in Rehoboth: the women to shop, the men to hang out at the hotel where they would all overnight. Everyone was happy, except my pal Toni, whose favorite bag was a stiff $575, down from $750. "Put it back," I hissed. And she did.

Perhaps to ease the pain, she bought herself a magic wand that emitted the distinctive Tinker Bell metallic whoosh at the Disney Store ($6.99) to wear on Halloween, then wondered why I didn't plan to be seen with her in public Oct. 31.

At Van Heusen, I bought myself a terrific everday watch for $15 (see "Tips" at right for clever details), one of two must-get items on my list after workout shoes.

Oh, how we scored at Nike, where Toni and I amassed $145.91 worth of sneakers and socks. But finding no money-saving coupons, we devolved into a kind of psychotic frenzy. Toni had paid for her stuff and left for the next store when I learned there was, in fact, a 20 percent discount on purchases over $125. What else could I do but order her back by cellphone so that our new best friend, ace cashier Cathey Campbell, could process Toni's returns, ring up our collective purchase, deduct the $29.29 savings and then, miraculously, let us pay with two credit cards.

We praised her lavishly to the store manager, uttered a little prayer that no one we knew had seen us (not likely in the offseason) and headed to QVC.

It is there I found the second, fancier wristwatch of my dreams: sleek, chic, made in Italy and originally, allegedly, $228 on TV. Here it cost $200.64, but jewelry was half off that day. Sold, for $100.32.

Ten paces away, I was baffled by four enormous crates full of pot lids. I saw no matching saucepans or skillets, just lids. Perhaps I didn't look hard enough.

Impossible to miss was the Christmas decor, marked down another 30 percent. I sprang for a six-foot garland of clear plastic beads and lights, sans AA batteries. Worn as a necklace with the power pack hidden in my waistband, it would allow me to celebrate Halloween as a "cheap lei" ($13.86, to be precise). A three-foot-wide, pre-lit, white rubber indoor-outdoor poinsettia was a steal at $12.80. It looks so fine in my roof garden.

The QVC zeitgeist was best summed up by Mandy Souders, manager of a Fredericksburg physical therapy office, who had snagged two seriously reduced jackets. Mom had nurtured her enduring love of QVC, said Souders, who added, "Cheap schlock is better than expensive schlock."

Amen, sister.

* Reboboth Beach is about 2 1/2 hours from the Capital Beltway. Take Route 50 across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to Route 404 and follow the signs. For information on lodging, restaurants and shopping, including the outlets, check with the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce, 800-441-1329, http://www.beach-fun.com. Another good site is http://www.rehoboth.com.

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