(Editor’s note: We’ve updated this post with news about Designer Outlet Roermond. And consider this a gentle reminder you have just one more full day to finish that Christmas shopping.)
I couldn’t believe I was standing in line on a beautiful fall day waiting to get into the Polo store at Designer Outlet Roermond on the Dutch side of the Netherlands/Germany border.
Waiting in line for the opportunity to fork over my hard-earned money. Me, and like maybe a hundred other people.
As I have so many times in my life, all I can think is, “Why didn’t I come up with this?”
It was an October Saturday afternoon, and this was a crazy busy place, because the Roermond complex is a magnet for bargain shoppers such as my family. Its location on Netherland’s border with Germany means it draws from several big cities, including Dusseldorf and Cologne, Brussels and Amsterdam. (Just the number of expats within driving distance is huge!)
Which is the strategy of London-based developer McArthurGlen Group, developer of Roermond and outlet centers in eight countries including the Netherlands, France and Canada.
In Roermond, they throw in a scenic small Dutch city as a special bonus, as they say in retail.
Tip No. 1: From our friends who work at the center – don’t come on a weekend. One employee told us, “Year round, the weekends are crazy. It can be 38 degrees (Centigrade) outside, and they still come to shop.”
In October, there were literally lines out the doors at many of the stores including the 2-story anchor Polo store, which is huge.
But the longest line by far was in front of the Michael Kors store, a testament to the sustained global popularity of the New York designer’s purses.
Tip No. 2: The main Polo store at Roermond has full retail apparel and accessories discounted and on clearance.
The smaller Lauren and Denim & Supply stores have goods specifically made for the New York-based retailer’s outlet stores. Employees at various apparel brands confirmed that some – certainly not all – carry second-quality clothing made for the outlet center.
The majority of shoppers are from Germany, and one of the clerks – originally from London with a Dutch parent – told us she was required to learn German in order to work at the Polo store. I ran into a group of three 20-something fashion students – two young women and a young man – toting bags from Ralph Lauren and other shops who’d come 45 minutes from Dusseldorf.
The big draw, they told me, was price. Maximim said a determined shopper can occasionally find super bargains at Roermond. He told me about a Prada shirt he scored for 60 euros, which can go for $360 or more even on discount fashion sites such as Yoox.
Tip No. 3: Our friends who work at the center told us the McArthurGlen concept is for all prices to be at least 30-percent off full retail.
We tried to talk to company media people in London, but got no response. The good news, there are constant discount promotions, and Polo employees handed out 10 percent discount cards like candy.
Leoni, Maximim’s petite blonde German shopping partner, said she believes it’s possible to have nice clothes without designer brands. But the trio agreed the Roermond outlet center is a fun outing where bargains abound. “This is much nicer than hanging out in some mall,” said Joanna, who’s from Korea.
A serious shopper probably needs to dedicate a full afternoon here because there are, according to the center’s website, 200 stores, though some are tiny. And to fight the crowds.
Tip No. 4. If you – against all advice – come on the weekend or at Christmas, forget about parking in the outlet center’s dedicated lots.
They’re always full. Park down on the edge of town for free.
The good news at Christmas is, at least 1,600 new parking spaces will be available Christmas Eve, part of a huge expansion scheduled to be open in April, 2017. (See below for more details about the expansion.)
But you should still walk through Roermond the City. It’s a neat town with great cafes. And the exercise will do you good if you really want to still fit into those Hugo Boss Orange slacks you bought a couple of seasons back.
For Americans based in Germany or the Netherlands, a trip to Roermond is a chance to shop upscale brands that aren’t readily available in the U.S. outside of New York and LA including Moncler, Victorinox apparel (along with the watches), Prada, Gucci and Burberry.
For fans of the best of the best, Roermond has Zegna, Bally, Tod’s and a nice Armani store.
For those of us who don’t fall into “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it” consumer category, there are all the ubiquitous mid-range brands from Swiss men’s clothier Strellson (which makes a terrific courier bag for a couple of hundred euros instead of the 600- to-1,100 euros you’d pay at Gucci or Bally), Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Marc O’Polo and S. Oliver. There were more than a couple I’d never heard of including Fjällräven, a Swedish outdoor clothing and equipment retailer, and Jacque Britt, a Dutch/Belgian shirtmaker. And of course, there are multiple shoe outlets including giant Nike and Puma anchor stores.
The balance of stores are mid-range, with not as much haute couture as at some of the outlet centers in Italy including Brunello Cucinelli’s own company-owned outlet in Solomeo.
The prices really are pretty good, and I came away with a pair of Ralph Lauren red suede driving mocs off the clearance shelf for 28 euros after I used a 30-percent discount coupon. But the store was so crowded, there was a fair amount of combat shopping as people jockeyed for position along the clearance racks. If you don’t like crowds, Roermond is not the shopping experience you’re looking for.
Odd business model
All this is great for the consumers. But discount factory outlet centers have always seemed to me to be a devil’s bargain for retailers.
The concept started out as a place where apparel brands and manufacturers dump all of last year’s fashion overruns, or suppliers could move imperfect clothing for deeply discounted prices.
But the whole idea of, say, Tommy Hilfiger, undercutting the department stores and boutiques he sells to seems, well, unseemly, especially at a time when big retailers and malls are struggling.
That said, the audiences don’t seem to intersect. In the U.S., outlet malls tend to be collections of disposable buildings and stores with the cheapest possible tenant finishes. They’re destinations for retirement home outings and bus tours, though they’ve gone a bit more upscale lately.
In the U.S., outlet centers are supposed to be located far enough from full-price retailers that they don’t cannibalize sales. But they’ve moved a lot closer to the malls over the years.
In Europe, it’s a whole different deal. True to McArthurGlen’s philosophy, the lexicon here is “designer outlet,” not factory outlet. And McArthurGlen execs do a great job of creating an appealing shopping experience. In fact, they’re just a little too popular.
Consumer experience here appears to be much more important. The Roermond center is 15 years old, but the originial buildings are attractive. There are benches and mature trees in the open areas in the middle of each wing of the center.
A number of the storefronts have been redone with Dutch-style facades. Others are undergoing redesigns.
We know fashion discounting is popular with expats, with an overview we posted last winter on our beta site still popping up each week on the best-read list! But it’s not until you’re physically on the ground shopping that you realize how wildly successful this concept is in Europe!
Roermond, the Town:
As we said, in the States, the outlet centers are mostly in Nowheresville, off the interstates and far from urban centers. Designer Outlet Roermond, by contrast, is in the middle of a great small city that has its own merits, including a lovely and happenin’ Old City and canal-side cafes. And the good news is the outlets stores haven’t wiped out the local retail trade.
Roermond the town is in the middle of an extensive body of water known as the “Maasplassen,” which is in fact a chain of lakes on the Maas River. So boating is big here in the summer. Bordering the water are a variety of outdoor recreation sites as well as hiking and biking trails. The sailing is so good the NATO Joint Command in Brunssum has their sailing club here. This is a destination worth at least a long weekend.
Numbers, notes and stuff we forgot:
• How successful is Designer Outlet Roermond? The complex currently is under construction, with plans to double in size by next year including adding an hotel, according to the different people we talked with at the shops.
The Dutch media has just reported in December that McArthurGlen Group is spending about 70 million euros to double the size of the Roermond complex. Phase 4 will add as many as 60 new stores and new restaurants and cafes including a Starbucks, according to media reports and news releases. Total parking will accommodate more than 6,000 visitors with the completion of a 34 million euro parking garage.
• Let’s talk money. Not every item is a “bargain,” but I saw plenty. I like Victorinox apparel, and I saw the travel blazer similar to the one I paid more than $200 for on sale for 70 euros. They also had a cotton blazer on sale for 50 euros that I’ve seen for more than $100 even on discount websites such as Sierra Trading Post. Moncler men’s down jackets were 654 euros, marked down from 935, or 30 percent.