A curious thing happened on the way to the new outlet mall in Chesterfield.
Some shoppers who thought they were going to St. Louis Premium Outlets, which had its grand opening on Thursday, got turned around and found themselves instead at the other one — Taubman Prestige Outlets, which opened a few weeks ago.
You can’t blame them. St. Louis Premium Outlets is a bit harder to find, whereas Taubman has more direct access from Interstate 64 (Highway 40).
And it’s been confusing — even for my editors — to keep the two projects straight.
But for many of the determined shoppers who showed up at St. Louis Premium Outlets on Thursday, a clear distinction between the two had already begun to take hold.
“There’s no comparison,” said Vicki Moritz of Chesterfield as she sat on a bench surrounded by shopping bags from Vera Bradley, Columbia Sportswear and Naturalizer. “This is way better. This has way more stores. This is like the mothership, calling us home. It’s fabulous.”
Moritz, who identifies herself as a “marathon shopper,” makes a two-day shopping trip every fall with her friends to the outlets in Osage Beach, Mo. But she said that now that St. Louis Premium Outlets had opened, she may no longer have a reason to make that annual trip.
She was also there a few weeks ago for opening day at the Taubman outlets. She was not as impressed with its smaller selection of stores or its linear layout. She didn’t think it had enough restrooms. And frankly, Moritz said she didn’t care that Taubman was rolling out the red carpet for shoppers to bring their dogs. It was the quality of shopping that mattered most to her.
“This is the ‘Premium’ Outlets,” she said. “They know how to do it.”
The 350,000-square-foot center is the 80th Premium Outlets that Simon Property Group, which is the largest outlet mall operator in the United States, has opened around the world, said John Klein, president of that division. The price tag on it is more than $100 million.
At a ribbon-cutting ceremony, Klein and other Simon officials gushed that the center opened on time and is 100 percent leased. It has 90 stores, about 85 of which opened on Thursday.
(By comparison, the Taubman project is more than 80 percent leased and has just over 45 stores open so far. Many shoppers have also been dismayed that its food court is not yet open.)
In an interview, Klein said officials are looking at moving on “immediately” to phase two of St. Louis Premium Outlets. That will entail about 70,000 square feet and would include 20 to 25 more tenants.
“It could happen as soon as next year,” he said. “I’d like it to open in 2014.”
Shoppers around the world have come to know and understand the Premium Outlets brand, Klein noted. Many of the centers are quite similar, though the mix of stores will vary based on the market.
“We’ve been advertising heavily to Europeans, Asians, South Americans about our domestic portfolio for 25 years,” he said. “And right now, there’s a huge influx of Chinese tourism to the U.S. So if a group is on a trade mission to St. Louis, let’s say they are working with Budweiser, they’re going to say, ‘I want to go to the Premium Outlets because I’ve been to one in Korea and I had a great time there.’”
He said it’s hard to predict what the percentage of tourists versus locals will be at any specific project. But he said tourists make up 30 percent of the traffic at many of its centers.
On Thursday, the crowd seemed mostly local. The stores that were some of the biggest draws — Coach and Vera Bradley — had lines outside the door most of the day as store employees would let a few shoppers in at a time as others left the store to help control traffic.
At times, it felt like Black Friday. In fact, I ran into a die-hard bargain shopper whom I interviewed on Thanksgiving Day near the front of the line outside a Target store in Fairview Heights.
One extreme shopper, Susan Maessen of St. Peters, showed up outside the Coach store at 2 a.m. The 30 percent-off deal in the store was good all day, but the Coach devotee wanted to be the first in line.
“There were over 2,000 people in line at the other place,” she said, referring to the opening of the Taubman outlets a few weeks ago.
Maessen showed up at that opening in the middle of the night, too, mistakenly thinking that the Coach store was at that center.
The Taubman outlets were jam-packed over its opening weekend, too. So it remains to be seen how the crowds will shake out at both centers as time goes on.
But around noon on Thursday, while its rival was garnering all the attention, it wasn’t hard to find a parking spot at Taubman. Still, many shoppers were walking along its main corridor.
Kim Gilliard of Ferguson was one of them. She had originally intended to go to St. Louis Premium Outlets but ended up Taubman because she became unclear of the directions.
She liked the fact that both centers are outdoors. But she wasn’t too impressed with the store lineup she saw at Taubman.
“I wish there was more,” Gilliard said. “Something is missing. I can’t wait to see the other one.”
She was headed there afterward.