They meant to meet friends on the Eastern Shore for an afternoon of canoeing. But 3 p.m. had come and gone, and still the Baltimore couple dawdled.
Alyson Becker and Mark Kashima had planned to spend this recent Saturday under shade trees, not under the burgundy awnings that shield the Bay Bridge Market Place Factory Outlet stores. But Becker was immersed in china patterns, Kashima and his dog waited on a bench -- and the silvery span of the Chesapeake Bay was still a mile in the distance.
"Well, we're getting married," said Kashima, a biologist, explaining the extended delay over dishes.
"And Binky here," he said, indicating the pit bull terrier beside him, "doesn't like to go very far without a rest."
There are new distractions on Route 50, the road that crosses the Bay Bridge and leads to the Maryland and Delaware beaches -- and not just the infamous traffic problems.
In the past couple of years, the area a mile west and 15 miles east of the bridge has become home to more than 70 outlet stores designed to snag free-spending tourists. "Reach the beach" is no longer the only goal. Stopping and shopping for a while is now an option. Although they offer discounts of 20 percent to 70 percent, the stores are clearly geared to the sort of customer who can afford weekend excursions and to whom the loftier brand names have a special resonance: Anne Klein, Calvin Klein, Liz Claiborne, Maidenform, Van Heusen, Harve' Benard, Royal Doulton, Adolfo Sport.
There's a Wall Street Deli, which seems out of place in this onetime land of barbecued-chicken stands and produce tents, and the Ribbon Outlet, which offers 3,000 varieties of ribbons and trims.
"You have to be systematic about this," said Gladys Wheeler, an Alexandria resident who works for the Public Broadcasting Service, who was moving deliberately through the Liz Claiborne store with a stack of clothing draped over one arm. "I'm always thinking that if I keep looking, there's something just around the corner that I have to have."
Wheeler and her new daughter-in-law, Becky, were killing time en route to Easton for a get-acquainted weekend together. "We can't check in to the motel until 2," shrugged Becky Wheeler, who works for Time-Life Books, as she cast a critical eye on a white blouse that she added to her mound of selections. "When my arms are full, I figure I'm through."
Outlet shopping is certainly not a new idea. It originated decades ago in New England, on New York's Lower East Side and in the textile towns of the South. But it is only in recent years that developers have begun grouping these factory and discount stores together to create tempting bargain malls along well-worn outlying routes.
"We wanted to be at that 20- to 25-mile magical limit, just far enough outside the shopping districts of Washington and Baltimore," said Craig Eney, property director of the Bay Bridge Market Place, which has 27 stores. "The design is very upscale -- shoppers used to associate outlets with rundown, dingy buildings, warehouses. We have cream walls and burgundy awnings."
That departure from the no-frills setup is also evident at the Chesapeake Village Outlet Center, which includes about 20 stores and offers "a relaxation room" for travelers.
Most vulnerable, it seems, are those who only meant to browse.
Bette Goldman, of Rockville, emerged from a Chesapeake Village store on a recent Saturday, her arms loaded with bags.
"Look," she said in a mock-defensive tone. "I needed every one of these things."