Burlington’s bargains Irregularities in outlet mall culture

by Amy Kingsley

A street sign shudders in the cold wind at the entrance to the Burlington Manufacturers Outlet Center, known locally as the BMOC. On top of the dull metal pole, two signs for Plaza and Plantation drives indicate, respectively, the right and left tines of a fork in the road.

Plantation Drive runs downhill next to Interstate 40 for two miles until it turns off into a web of neighborhood streets. Presumably the name of the road was, in antebellum years, apt. Alamance County started, like most other outposts of civilization, as an agrarian community. Early settlers built houses and cleared pines for farmland. The farmers who prospered added outbuildings and slave quarters, which they kept until Union soldiers rolled like a blue norther over the Mason-Dixon.

Plaza Drive is much shorter. It’s a wide, dogleg strip of asphalt that dead-ends into the vacant storefront that, for more than 25 years, housed an S&K Menswear.

A Hardee’s sits at the junction of Plaza and Plantation. Inside, the restaurant is clean and new, full of metallic S-curves and fluorescent light. At the table nearest the intersection two men and a woman dressed identically in navy Polo shirts and khaki pants chat over their coffee. New-looking tennis shoes – brown Nikes with pink swooshes, striped Adidas and pale Reeboks – cover their feet.

They are good shoes, stylish and comfortable. The kind of shoes people who know about shoes would wear during an hours-long shift at the outlet mall. As it turns out, these three do know about shoes; they are the majority of a shift crew scheduled to open the Finish Line Outlet Store, an athletic wear emporium situated in the unceremoniously named Building 17.

My own shoes are black and gold with turned up toes. They are laced over feet headed in another direction, toward Building 8’s largest tenant: Westpoint Stevens.

The Westpoint Stevens Outlet Center has more square feet of retail space than its four nearest neighbors combined, but all that floor space does not look sufficient to contain the volume of housewares on sale for 60 to 40 percent off the retail price. The store specializes in home fabrics. Westpoint Stevens produces bed sheets, comforters, towels and throw pillows for store and designer labels like Ralph Lauren, Martha Stewart and Grand Patrician. Kitchen and bath accessories made of metal, wood and plastic occupy a series of shelves near the entrance. Near the center of the space, bins overflow with 50-cent washcloths.

It has been a long time since I set foot inside an outlet mall, and for some reason I remember them as things akin to junk warehouses, institutions barely removed from thrift stores. This, in fact, is not the case. My covetous dark side rears its ugly head upon glimpsing a set of stylish 300-count cotton sheets at a fraction of their usual cost.

The day is already setting up to be more than a leisurely stroll through the Burlington outlet center; it is also shaping up as a struggle to suppress the spendthrift side of my nature. I realize that my ability to navigate 21 buildings full of overstock manna without breaking the bank will depend entirely on my willpower.

Most of the outlet stores open at 10 a.m., but the Westpoint Stevens store opens an hour earlier. At that hour, store employees outnumber customers by about four to one. Later in the day, when I tell a store employee that I’m looking for customers to interview, I get a dubious response.

“Good luck,” says Jamie Brown.

“I guess it’s after the holidays,” I say. “That’s sort of a slow time for shopping.”

“No,” she says. “It’s kind of slow over here. There just aren’t that many customers anymore. Everyone is going over there.”

She points west, to the places where developers have set their sights and, in some cases, their cornerstones. Over the horizon, strip malls and projects with names like University Commons and Alamance Crossing are winning the customers who used to spend the majority of their disposable income at the BMOC.

“It’s sad, really,” she says. “This place has such a history.”

The BMOC does have a history. At 26 years old, it is widely considered the nation’s first outlet mall. No sign proclaims it so, and the constellation of squat brick buildings is more eyesore than monument, but for a time the BMOC was a destination for bargain shoppers located up and down the eastern seaboard.

Now it’s not even a destination for the people of Burlington.

Thanks to a newly-formed group – the BMOC Investors, comprised in part by members of the Raleigh real-estate investment company Allen & Co. – the mall might soon be getting a much-needed makeover. The company recently acquired 175,000 square feet of mall property for $6.25 million. Company leaders are currently negotiating the purchase of another portion.

A company spokesperson declined to describe any specifics of their plans for the center, but said the new owners will be working with the businesses to improve the mall and attract more tenants.

The new owners say they intend to focus on savings, quality products and consumer values – the pistons that drove outlet mall expansion in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Burlington has a rich history and we look forward to working with the community on the many facets of redevelopment,” said Catherine Miller, the company president.

Optimism about the change runs high among the outlet mall tenants.

“I can’t see anything but good coming from this,” says Brett Harden, the manager at Finish Line.

“The only changes will probably be for the better,” says Loren Phipps, an employee at Van Heusen. “They’ll probably renovate it. We’re due for some pavement or something.”

The reinvention of this piece of property jibes nicely with the history of a place practically built on innovation. Alamance County native Edwin Michael Holt led the transition from agrarian to industrial economy when he pioneered the production of colored cotton fabric. Holt hit paydirt with the creation of “Alamance Plaid,” a simple blue-and-white pattern that was the first such design industrially produced in the American South.

The Holt family eventually owned 29 textile mills, and their industry dominated the economic landscape from 1837 to the 1960s. Long before company headquarters started shifting manufacturing overseas, Burlington Industries bought up the Holts’ textile mills and revolutionized the industry once again with the introduction of synthetics in lieu of high-priced cotton.

Burlington’s first outlet stores sprouted from the trunk of industry. Factories would open such stores to sell damaged, returned or out-of-season merchandise. Stanley Tanger, the owner of a factory in Reidsville that produced button shirts for department stores and the military, started an operation consisting of five outlet stores to handle his own defective merchandise.

He hit upon the idea of clustering factory outlets together for consumer convenience and, in 1981, developed the BMOC.

Tanger Factory Outlet Centers is headquartered in Greensboro and has a stake in 35 outlet centers in 23 states. The biggest of those, with more than 700,000 feet of leasable space, dwarfs the BMOC.

And the BMOC is pretty big, in the scheme of things. What it lacks in sidewalks, awnings, landscaping and other niceties it makes up for in sheer asphalt expanse.

This was a mall made for driving, I think, as I set off on foot over the uneven parking lot toward Building 7, a strip of vacant spaces and shoe stores.

With the exception of shoes, the BMOC is sorely lacking in the fashion department. The Burlington Coat Factory pulled up stakes more than a year ago and the S&K Menswear defected at the end of December.

Izod’s has a store there, and the Burlington Brands are represented by a couple of shops hawking American Eagle castoffs. Local hosiery Hanes has a store stocked with unmentionables. Jockey does too. And Adam & Eve, a chain of adult-oriented stores based in Hillsborough, leases prominent space near the bathrooms. Shoppers in a connubial mood can wallow in Bridal Mart’s lace and satin wares, and take in a sermon at Integrity Community Church while they’re at it.

The church occupies Building 5, a prime chunk of real estate in the shadow of I-40. They’ve carved a playground out of a corner of parking lot and fenced it with chain link. Neither the one-story buildings nor the decorative shrubbery does much to blot out the early afternoon sun.

On several of the buildings, the awnings provide little shade or protection from the elements. Some of the overhead lights dangle by their wires. The only way to escape the cold is to duck into one of a handful of kitchenware stores.

Inside Pfaltzgraff, I encounter a number of kitchen utensils I never would have imagined myself needing, let alone anyone else. Among those are an egg slicer, a Euro peeler and a spice rack bundled with a computerized cookbook.

Gazing at the flatware patterned in styles termed “Evening Sun,” “Melissa,” “Intersection,” “Radius” and “Hamptons,” I remember the ingenuity of Holt family servants. When rural Alamance County was as cut off from New York City as, say, Afghanistan, they poured molten pewter into molds to make their own utensils.

Then again, maybe ingenuity still thrives around these parts; the price sticker shows a 60 percent markdown.

Having limited myself to the purchase of a $1.25 bag of Pepperidge Farm raspberry Milanos at the bakery outlet, I decide to recharge my willpower at Sam’s Cheeseburgers. Unlike many of the other outlet center tenants, the place appears to be doing pretty brisk business. Customers include police officers, businessmen and teenagers, none of whom lug around shopping bags.

An influx of new, well-heeled citizens is responsible for the shift of retail in Burlington away from outlet centers to big-box and high-end spending, says Bill Vincent, director of the Alamance County Historical Museum.

“The community has become more of a bedroom community for the Triangle and the Triad,” he says. “A large population of folks who have moved into the area came from other states. We’ve also become home to two major retirement centers. Those places have brought in folks from widely divergent geographic areas and it has altered the community.”

Large-scale development, including places like BMOC, may reflect their community, but they have significantly changed the physical landscape. Outlet malls are hardly the only offenders when it comes to environmentally unfriendly construction practices. Like other large-scale construction projects, they tend to involve a lot of concrete, and when rain falls, the runoff picks up oil and other pollutants and carries it into the watershed.

Unlike other retail projects, outlet malls erupt far from major cities and the department stores that might object to their cut-rate prices. During their heyday more than a decade ago, outlet malls were shopping destinations, bringing heavier traffic and air pollution to towns that had previously been little more than pit stops.

At the edges of the BMOC, Alamance County’s natural wildlife thrives. Before this area was developed, it was home to bog turtles, Kirtland’s warblers and Cape Fear shiners that have now largely disappeared from the area. It is still home to the odd white tail deer, rat snake and eastern cottontail. Thick stands of pine tower over the buildings, particularly near the western windbreak, providing homes for countless birds.

Several miles away, the EM Holt house still stands as a monument to the man who put this county on the map. Fresh paint covers its heavy cornices and gingerbread trim, and the upholstery on every neo-classical piece is brushed and unstained. Alamance County is a community that preserves its relics, even when progress leaves them behind.

“What keep us alive is the fact that we’re outlets,” says Phipps, the Van Heusen employee. “People know they’re going to get a better deal than the department store.”

Phipps ends her break and walks back inside the Van Heusen store where, sure enough, customers wander in and out at a steady pace.

Yep, Alamance County preserves its relics, alright. But when it can’t, no doubt some company will find a way to sell them at a steep discount.

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