It can't have been long after Adam and Eve began wearing clothes that some of their descendants recoiled in horror at the notion of paying the full retail price for a blouse, a skirt or a pair of designer jeans. Many millennia were to pass before a new Eden arose to answer their prayers, but when it did, its name was New England, and its buzzword was the factory outlet store.
It is written on the bumpers, "When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping," but this is hardly an anthem for the hard-core bargain-hunter. Spiffy goods await us in the malls, but to rely on the malls to look like a fox or a lox, the cost is ruinous and the skill is nil.
Instead, march to this declaration of financial independence: "I think paying full price for anything is almost immoral," says Elaine Ironfield, dean for institutional development at Holyoke Community College in Holyoke, Mass., itself a growing magnet for factory outlets. "Any fool can do it. It doesn't take any brains. There's no talent to it."
Ironfield, a native Yankee, came to the working world from an undergraduate degree in retailing from Skidmore, followed by Macy's retail training program. She raised a family and found a new campus career, but when she turned to face the marketplace as a consumer, she and her network of fellow factory outlet devotees found their Yankee niche and their edge.
If you're lucky enough to live in Yankee-land, you can haunt these outlets as conveniently as you can maul the malls. For non-New Englanders, there are obvious added costs of gas, food and lodging. But in the last decade, something rather magical has happened: From every state east of the Mississippi, people have begun to combine their New England vacations -- to ski, to schlep the kids to and from summer camp, to soak up the splendor of the autumn foliage -- with commando attacks on the factory outlets which are always located in scenically breathtaking country vales. In other words: See a Yankee, be a Yankee.
Are the fabled bargains at the factory outlet store a myth? What's in it for Anne or Calvin Klein to slash prices on first-quality goods? The bargains are no myth, explains Ironfield, and a complex of marketplace
processes makes the factory outlet a necessary and attractive one for top clothing manufacturers.
The basic problem these manufacturers face is the inescapably long calendar advance between offering their designs to retailers and delivering the goods for sale. In that torturously long period, fashion consumers (that's us) may do two wicked, vicious and ungrateful things: Their tastes may change, and their wallets may run embarrassingly short of money. In either case, a full nine months after the fashion houses have made their fabric commitments and their first contracts of delivery to the major retailers, their threads may reach the marketplace and find far fewer buyers and far less demand than originally anticipated. And the fashion houses don't just crank out those first contractual orders for Lord & Taylor and Bloomingdale's. They're hoping for a strong market reception with additional runs of their designs.
But when the reorders don't materialize because demand is soft, something has to give, and the Salvation Army depositories are not a satisfactory answer. Pride and image come into play; a glitzy label can suffer considerable image droop if consumers find racks of its goods at top retail outlets with slashed prices and drastic markdowns. Unsophisticated shoppers wonder, "What's wrong with this stuff? Why are they taking 40 percent off?" and, believe it or not, they drift to the full-price racks of other labels. (I've worked retail and I've seen it myself. There are limo-loads of people, Lord love 'em, who feel uncomfortable paying less than they have to; many of them take positive pride in being gouged.)
Enter the factory outlet store. In New England, it's typically a recycled red-brick 19th-century mill, a boon to the tax base and tourism draw of small failed-factory towns with obscure names. Inside, it's low-overhead all the way: no Muzak, no bathrooms, just racks and racks of goods, some changing rooms and a few full-length mirrors. There are employes on the floor, but they're there to restock the shelves, not to give in-depth assistance to finicky shoppers. The only allowable question is whether a particular size is available, and usually, if it's not already on the racks, it's not.
No one, however myopic, has ever mistaken me for Beau Brummel, but even I have fallen victim to the lust for clothes at the factory outlet. I first came down with the fever on a trip to see some pals who fled Washington to settle in Brunswick, Maine, on the seacoast north of Portland. I was feeling particularly seedy and threadbare that season, so my pals pointed me south to Freeport, whose centerpiece is L.L. Bean, where the surfer and the sheik enter, and the preppie, the fly fisherman and the moose-hunter emerge.
Bean's began shortly after the turn of the century by making outdoor footgear as a cottage industry, opened a retail store in Freeport to outfit farmer, fisherman and hunter, and in 1951 hit on the extraordinary notion of staying open for business 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. "Mr. Bean," remarked Down East raconteur Marshall Dodge, "didn't see any sense in paying a night watchman who couldn't also sell the merchandise." (The proprietor himself wrote: "We have thrown away the keys to the store.") The move was hardly the madness it might seem for the hamlet of Freeport; by this time, Bean's mail-order business was thriving more than enough to justify three shifts, and the Bean legend blossomed whenever a Bostonian or New Yorker showed up at 3 a.m. demanding to be outfitted for a canoe or mountaineering expedition farther north in the Maine wilderness.
When casual, comfortable and sensible finally became principles of fashion, Bean's was prepared with a top-quality line of chamois and flannel shirts, sweaters, and down vests and jackets to beat even the chill on the summit of Mount Katahdin. And in the back, there was a built-in factory outlet for closeouts and irregulars on all items. Its activity is a stark contrast to the well-behaved full-ticket floors; back in the cramped, alley-narrow factory outlet is a nonstop feeding frenzy among bins and racks that stops just short of actual tug-of-war over a sweater in the right size.
Suddenly Freeport began making a lot of sense to other sportswear manufacturers in need of factory outlets, and in the last 10 years, this frumpy little town with its white clapboard and colonial architecture straddling U.S. Route 1 began to mushroom with the most unexpected names: Ralph Lauren, Laura Ashley, Hathaway, Van Heusen, Benetton, London Fog, Frye boots, Ship 'n Shore, not to mention nonclothing outlets like Corning and Dansk. The most recent edition of the Freeport shopping map lists 86 retail outlets, and ongoing expansions of outlet mini-malls to the south and east of the Main Street crunch have probably put the number at about 100.
Motels south of town that were strictly summer seasonal and were starting to resemble Norman Bates' establishment have pumped capital into bright new annexes, and are still hard-pressed to accommodate the crowds. But in the past three spectacular shopping years, downtown Route 1 has heeded the call and converted itself into a village of pristine bed-and-breakfast New England inns, all of them sporting "no vacancy" signs during my recent autumn foray to Freeport.
Freeport's (and perhaps the world's) most deceptive piece of architecture is the elegant federal-style mansion at 155 Main St. in which lurks the town's McDonald's restaurant; if there's a golden arch around, it's somewhere where it doesn't offend the zoning commission. (If I were 6, I wouldn't believe it was McDonald's for a second; I'd think it was a trap to go to the dentist.) Other restaurants to suit all price ranges abound; my favorite has been the Jameson Tavern right next door to Bean's, with the Maine lobster of your dreams and all the fireplace-and-pewter coziness you could desire. In 1820, the pact that made Maine a separate state from Massachusetts was signed there.
Once the Freeport shopping spree begins, sooner or later you must go to L.L. Bean -- because, as of press time, Bean's has the only public restrooms downtown. This is being remedied two blocks to the east, as a tourist center and restroom complex nears completion by the railroad tracks. The traditional parking crush is also easing with the creation of new offstreet parking lots, but the outlet explosion still outpaces Freeport's parking woes. Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream displays a sign that apologizes for not being able to sell any scooped ice cream dishes. If they scooped cones, the town would define them as a restaurant, and the town insists on a certain number of parking spaces for each restaurant. Ben & Jerry's has bought a nearby parking lot and is waiting for the town to approve it. Then they can scoop instead of selling only prepacked ice cream.
But Bean's is more than clean restrooms and preppie threads. Corners of the store house world-renowned departments for specific varieties of outdoor lovers. I've never cast a line for a fish, but I'm always reeled in by the freshwater fishing department, much of which is devoted to the art of creating one's own fishing lures -- fly-tying. For my fisherfolk friends, an inexpensive but greatly appreciated gift is an assortment of Bean's own lures and flies, and I enjoy pretending to be a hungry trout as I choose the ones I think my friends will get lucky with: The Adams midge, the Dun divisible, the black midge, the shrimp sofa pillow, the ginger quill, the mosquito and black gnat all use feathers, plastic, fur and other dry materials to mimic the look of the insect nymphs and larvae on which river and lake fish love to pounce.
Nearby are Bean's arsenals for the game stalker: compound bows, rifles, shotguns (prices easily ranging into the low thousands), with the weirdest of accessories. Here you can buy a battery-powered finger-warmer for the fingers that must remain ungloved in the winter while bow-hunting. I was intrigued by Bean's perfumes that make you smell like a skunk or a fox, not for that hot date, but to mask the human scent while hunting. Surely Bean's collection of exotic flashlights for every imaginable purpose and condition must be unrivaled.
Up the stairs, you can drop $650 for a pair of rubber-armored binoculars and not even near the top of the line. Bean's also prides itself on free clinics in various outdoor specialties for its clientele -- classes on backpacking, bird watching, Telemark skiing and wilderness search-and-rescue are just a few. Truly, if it's supposed to go outdoors, Bean's has it. (Down Route 1, at Bean's shipping warehouse, they also have a 20-foot-tall waterproof boot, but that's another story.)
But let's leave Bean's and drift around Freeport to clothe the naked in style. There's danger here, even for a clothes nerd like me. Three years ago I drifted into the Ralph Lauren outlet strictly to have a good laugh. I emerged deeply in debt; Ralph smelled me coming miles away. Since then, his Polo denim down vest, with heavy-duty firefighter's spring-load clasps, has hardly been off my torso from late fall to early spring. (When I'm not wearing it, the cats are sleeping in it.)
Freeport's sidewalks and alleys are packed with the most curious gaggle of shoppers: determined, eagle-eyed career women alone and in pairs, whole families making a stop before depositing one or more kids in college or prep school, couples of all vintages staggering through the crosswalks, laden with packages on their way back to cars bearing license plates from Louisiana to New York to Pennsylvania. Vans also bring squads of seniors to the fray.
The biggest draws are the outlets for women's fashions. Some, like Calvin Klein, are strictly floor, ceiling and racks -- hold the ambiance. Others, like Laura Ashley, insist on maintaining the retail image, with immaculately papered walls and displays as exquisite as you'd find in a city retail outlet.
The Calvin Klein outlet opened with little fanfare in a new mini-mall south of town in May, and its manager found a throng outside the doors on opening day. Since then, the throng just grew, culminating in a full-blown mob scene that denuded the racks on the Columbus Day weekend. Many Freeport outlets now suspect they won't even get a breather between Columbus Day and the start of the Christmas season at Thanksgiving. Calvin Klein anchors a collection of new outlets that includes Reebok shoes and Polly Flinders, a line of hand-smocked children's dresses. Smocking -- well, I didn't know -- is the 13th-century European art of bunched fabric texturing, usually on the bodice, and the Flinders line is sewn by Barbados and St. Vincent craftswomen.
Flinders boasts regular discounts of 60 percent; Calvin Klein's tickets, and those of most other women's outlets, typically claim mark-downs of 50 percent. At places like these, this can often mean that you're staring at a $560 plaid sport jacket miraculously marked down to $280; they could be telling the whole truth, and you could still swoon and wind up the most gorgeous creature in debtor's prison. (In case you were wondering, these places take all the plastic and personal checks, too. Budget strategy and strict sobriety are called for.)
But the truth about outlet discounting is that it is a more complex critter than it appears, warns Ironfield. Federal trade regulations apply, but they only work for the schooled and the cautious. A ticket that says "comparable value" means that according to somebody's process of assessment, the item is "worth" or "ought to sell" at a certain price at full retail. It's a loose and subjective term, as is "suggested retail price." "Original retail" is a tighter and more reliable designation, because the outlet must be prepared to prove that the item once did indeed sell for that price at retail.
Ultimately, however, your best defense is knowing the goods, the fabrics, the stitching techniques, the labels and knowing what comparable items are truly selling for in the big city to determine if you're getting the bargain of the season or a lifetime.
Individual factory outlets, for rugs, paper products, home furnishings, wallpaper, shoes and boots, cutlery and kitchenware, are everywhere in back-road New England. Freeport is the most astonishingly dense pocket of them, but there are others that shriek for attention:
The town of Ware in western Massachusetts, just off the Massachusetts Turnpike, has a restored red-brick factory complex that members of Ironfield's informal telephone network of outlet shoppers find exciting and dependable, particularly for footwear.
Holyoke, the Paper City, now boasts outlet stores in cookware and cutlery closeouts, and New Bedford has established a reputation as an outlet haven.
In the far west of the commonwealth, the Adams, Dalton and Pittsfield axis is a draw for some remarkable bargains in domestic and imported wallpapers and other home furnishings. Holyoke Community College career counselor Patricia Nelen, another habitue' of the markdown, particularly recommends a day trip to that corner of the Berkshires to combine scenic beauty and good dining with the bargain-hunting.
Ironfield hits her favorite outlets with this mantra of Yankee caution: "I have money. What do you have?" If you aim for the outlets with preconceived needs for a black blouse, a green knitted ankle-length skirt and a particular pair of pumps, the trip is doomed before it begins, she says; these ensembles will not be there the way they are at the mall. (Desperation, she says, is now her only motive to be seen at a mall.) But if your starting point is your budget, the outlet racks will guide you to a fine closet full of authentically great deals.
Spending money, no matter how good the bargains are, is not likely to make anyone rich; factory outlets are, after all, a variant of shopping, and when you shop, you pay. But when the bargains lurk down two-lane state roads that twist through the most unspoiled and peaceful kingdoms of New England, riches need only be slightly redefined to make hard Yankee sense.
Robert Merkin is a Washington native and novelist who lives in Northampton, Mass. In October, McGraw-Hill published his second novel, "Zombie Jamboree," in paperback. He is currently working on his third.
There are several guidebooks available for more information on outlet shopping in New England, among them "Inside Outlets" (Harvard Common Press) and "Factory Store Guide to All New England" (Globe Pequot Press). Both are available at Travel Books Unlimited, 4931 Cordell Ave., Bethesda. There is also a map, "Outlet Map: New Hampshire and Maine Factory Outlet Stores," available for $2.95 (including shipping) from the publisher: Glove Compartment Books, P.O. Box 1602, Portsmouth, N.H. 03801, (207) 439-0789.