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Outlet Bound: Look, Ma, No Tax!

At the Coach outlet in Rehoboth, Del., cousins Barbara Artis, left, and Diana Good of Baltimore examine handbags as sales associate Agnes I. Williams looks on.
At the Coach outlet in Rehoboth, Del., cousins Barbara Artis, left, and Diana Good of Baltimore examine handbags as sales associate Agnes I. Williams looks on. (Photos By Annie Groer -- The Washington Post)
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By Annie Groer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 28, 2007; Page C02

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

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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.


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