Outlet World

Posted on 20 May 2009

Outlet, indeed. The Woodbury outlets of New York State (located about 40 miles outside of NYC) are a strange kind of inlet, too–an inlet crammed with lots of mildly frenetic, fevered inflatable rowboats bumping into each other. At least, this is what I came to conclude, following a 3 hour visit to the Woodbury Commons Premium Outlets.

I have never seen anything like it.

Of course, the magnitude of the shock was partially my own fault.  If I had planned ahead properly, I could have prepared myself a little better for what was in store (literally).  A brief visit to the Woodbury website probably would have been sufficient; take, for example, this quote from their “Travel and Tourism” page: “Woodbury Common Premium Outlets is more than just a great collection of the finest designer labels and brands; it is one the world’s top shopping destinations.  Include a shopping stop when you are in the New York area or plan a special trip.  Located one hour from New York City, it is a bargain hunter’s haven.”  Good lord!  They couldn’t have said it better: “THIS PLACE IS A ZOO.  VISIT AT YOUR OWN RISK.”

More specifically, I think my companions and I would have benefitted greatly from the following items, during our “shopping stop”: water bottles (one for each person); a printed map (I mean, what self-respecting zoo doesn’t have one of these??); several cattle prods; a tape-recorder; and a few bags of quick-energy snacks (I’m particularly partial to twizzlers or jelly beans).  To our great dismay (or disgust?), we ultimately found that NOT being prepared was in fact part of the plan, at Woodbury.  Hungry?  Thirsty?  Lost?  Overpriced soda machines and snack stands are spread throughout the complex, to help you put some of those extra dollars you’re saving in the stores to good use.  Still more frightening, despite the sprawling size of the place there are only about four or five signs spread throughout, bearing the few coveted maps that can show you where in god’s name you are.  This means that in the process of trying to figure out where you are, you’re bound to pass at least 10 new stores that catch your eye (“Oooh!  I didn’t know they had a Benetton here!”); and by the time you finally reach a map to find the stores you really wanted, you’ve already visited 5 stores you hadn’t thought of and spent more than you’d intended to spend the whole morning.  It’s a perilous, bloodthirsty exercise.

But inside the stores is where the real action happens, and where you meet face to face the charming “inhabitants” of this surreal, Disney-esque outlet mecca.  And they, I have to say, are the real meat of the Woodbury experience.  Hundreds upon hundreds of excited shoppers of all ages (including babies in strollers!  Wha??) wander through the “streets” and into the stores, seemingly at random.  Among them are a healthy dose of the overdressed, high-strung New Yorkers you might expect, it being located so close to the city.  But there are also a surprisingly high number of foreigners.  As you probably know, both of these groups can tend to have slightly different ideas about personal space than what you are used to, in the U.S.  Unfortunately, the outlet environment appears to exaggerate this tendency–perhaps not such a great surprise, when you consider the natural mentality of bargain-shoppers.

The generally sour, pushy disposition of many shoppers struck a stark contrast with the overly perky music blasting over store sound systems.  One particular event which stands out in my memory took place in J. Crew (possibly the winner, or at least in the top three, for most annoying playlist), and involved two fake blondes in their late 40s or early 50s that were standing in line in front of me.  Both were carefully dressed in tight pants and heels, and both wore a generous application of makeup–heavy on the mascara.  The second one had her adolescent daughter with her, and I watched in fascination as she tried to angle her way in front of the woman standing in front of them.  I’m not sure why she felt like Blonde No. 1 had cut her in the first place, but she obviously felt very strongly about the matter.  Her main strategy was to uncomfortably crowd her daughter up into the backs of the people in front, nearly beside Blonde No. 1 but not in front of her.  As the line advanced and Blonde No. 2 continued crowding her daughter ahead–all the while avoiding any eye contact with Blonde No. 1–the situation became increasingly tense.  Observing awkwardly from the rear, I did my best to blend in with a rack of boxers as the strain in the air became almost palpable.  The upbeat tunes cheerfully blaring overhead quickly became incongruent and out of place.

At last we reached the front of the line and–phew!–finally, a showdown.  As the cashier motioned for the next person to step up, Blonde No. 2 made her move, daughter suddenly shoved out of the way–but Blonde No. 1 wasn’t going to have it.  Finally breaking the silence, she intercepted the pair: “I’m sorry, I was next.”  Blonde No. 2: “Oh, really?  I didn’t realize you were with them” (indicating the group in front of them).  Blonde No. 1, in rather shaky English (all the more props to her, for standing up for herself): “Yes, I am.”  Awkward silence.

Despite the high quality entertainment provided by this situation, it left me with a bitter, generally icky taste in my mouth.  What is wrong with humanity, that they can’t address each other like civilized human beings when they think there’s a concern at hand?  Another hour and a half was spent cruising from store to store, that day, and I left fully satisfied with a bulging armful of bargain apparel; but I also couldn’t ignore a certain dismay at how low people can stoop, when exposed to the right sort of commercial environment…

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