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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 December 2005, 00:12 GMT
Bargain hunters target small-town America
By Donna Bertaccini
In Central Valley, New York

As the Christmas shopping season gets into high gear, some of America's lesser-known towns and districts are seeing an influx of bargain hunters from across Asia, Europe and Latin America.

UK shoppers in front of lockers used to store their purchases
For those who buy too much to carry, lockers are on hand

With the dollar weak against the euro and pound, many shoppers are more than happy to pay dearly for their airfares in order to secure discounts on wares.

It's not just foreigners who enjoy honing their shopping skills, of course.

Discount malls, or retail outlet villages, can be found all over the place in the US, stocking everything from shoes to hats made by classy designers or by ordinary brands.

One such is Woodbury Common Premium Outlets, which opened for business two decades ago at the foothills of the Catskill Mountains in New York State, about an hour's drive north of New York City.

For consumers who fear that there is little to do in this part of the world other than shopping, there are at least plenty of stores - 220 to be precise, and rising.

They are all concentrated in the midst of lots of parking lots surrounding a network of pedestrian streets, food courts and, crucially, large lockers to stash the booty and airport-style luggage trolleys to cart it away.

"We've created the environment, but the creative shopper has in fact taught us," says Michele Rothstein, the mall's senior vice president of marketing.

Long haul

As is often the case in these places, customers travel far to get here.

Woodbury Common
Some outlet malls can be as big as a village

"These are international visitors," insists Ms Rothstein.

"There's a real investment in bonding with that customer."

That investment can take many forms, for example organised tours for groups of Foreign Independent Travellers - what is known in the trade as FITs.

"They don't necessarily come all together, but they are essentially on the same package deal," says Ms Rothstein.

"The trend these days is to have one's airfare and hotel and then a choice of optional activities along with a bus ticket for Woodbury Common.

"At the end of the day, we see people literally sprawled out in the courtyard folding their purchases in their suitcases and then getting back on their buses."

Frequent flyers

One such FIT - and a regular, as far as Woodbury is concerned - is Bernice from Dublin.

Along with her daughter Amy and sister Aileen, she has come to Woodbury Common on a four-day package deal - her fifth visit in recent years.

"We're here for the shopping, the prices and the friendly people. We're here for everything. I do all my Christmas shopping here," she says.

She lists her bargains: a jumper for $40 that would have cost four times as much in Ireland, three pairs of boots for the price of one pair at home.

And how much is she saving?

"We do much better than breaking even. Here, we do far better, and that's including airfare and lodging."

New arrival

Newcomers are keen to follow Bernice's example.

Irish shoppers Ann and Lynda at Woodbury
Tour operators have cottoned on to the demand for discounts

Ann, also from Ireland, arrived in the US for the first time late on a Saturday night and was ready to make an early start the next morning.

She had come with her daughter, Lynda - a veteran of the previous year when, along with a friend, she acknowledged she had spent "a fortune".

"I never stopped shopping," she says, with glee.

They, too, are here on a package deal, which for them includes taking in a performance of Phantom of the Opera on Broadway before they head home.

The pair of them have arrived with just the "bare essentials, to fit more in going home".

Travelling light

This is hardly uncommon.

"It's not unheard of for folks to arrive with only their wallets at Kennedy Airport... and then proceed to buy whatever is required for their stay," Ms Rothstein says.

Particularly eager shoppers even plan their assault on the stores in advance.

Angie, Jacqui and Louise, long-time friends from Essex in the UK, were laughing as they finished shoving their early-morning purchases into the first of several lockers they'd rented for the day.

On their sixth visit here, these FITs headed immediately to the stores.

"It's well worth travelling from England to New York just for the savings we make on one day's shopping," they say.

And if they've underestimated how much they can carry home... well, there's always the onsite luggage store.

The Big Apple bargain blitz
29 Nov 04 |  Americas

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