DESPITE the depressed economy in the blue-collar steel-mill town of Youngstown, Ohio, the George KU charter company is having no problem packing its motor coaches with weekend vacationers.
On most Fridays after work, all 10 of the company's coaches growl east through the night. Destination: bargains. Bargains on anything from a designer blouse to a cement bird feeder.
Here on Interstate 95, a corridor studded from Maine to Florida with discount shopping centers, sprawls Potomac Mills, the mother of all discount malls.
By some counts Virginia's No. 1 tourist attraction, Potomac Mills is not the enchanted kingdom. This is hard-core consumerism in all its elbow-to-elbow, foot-pounding, hanger-clacking, bin-digging, fluorescent-lit glory.
Nearly 3,000 charter buses a year - 80 percent of which name Potomac Mills as their sole destination - pull in here alongside cars bearing license plates from California to Canada.
The river of humanity coursing through the half-mile-long (and growing) mall is dotted with fezes, turbans, and all-American billed caps. Americans travel from hundreds of miles to do their Christmas shopping at the February sales here, and international travelers come to take advantage of the weak dollar.
Youngstown beauty shop owner Cheryl Balciar has been coming on charter tours to Potomac Mills and to the Williamsburg Pottery discount mall, 100 miles south, twice a year for seven years. She has yet to see historic Williamsburg or Mount Vernon, both just miles from each mall.
Mrs. Balciar usually comes in a group of 80 people she has organized to fill two buses at $95 per seat, including a night in a hotel. "It started out as a group of women who got tired of watching football games saying 'We need a weekend for ourselves,' " she says.
But in uncertain economic times, the bargains - and the entertaining hunt for them - became a mainstay in their budgets, says Balciar, whose husband's layoff from his General Electric light-bulb-factory job before Christmas was another reason to stay on the bargain-hunting trail.
This is a serious business for Balciar's group. It is not unusual for her weekend charters to bring home $20,000 in goods per bus. The record shopping tally for a 44-seat George KU bus, says Norma White, the company's tour director, was $69,000 on a pre-Christmas jaunt. Heavy-duty tape needed
Buses on return trips are filled to the roof with bargain booty. Serious shoppers carry rolls of heavy-duty tape to secure goods like baskets, shopping bags, dried flowers, and appliances, to every inch of ceiling space. Even the bus lavatory is filled with tall, standing items such as lamps and concrete lawn ornaments.
"I've been in business 25 years and there have always been shopping tours. But the demand and popularity has never been like it is now with the outlet-mall concept of clustering discount stores in one area," says John Stachnik, president of the National Tour Association and owner of Mayflower Tours in Downers Grove, Ill.
"Everyone enjoys the hunt," he says, noting that shopping tours cater to everyone from millionaires looking to haggle for antiques, to young couples looking for bargains, to retirees looking for entertainment.
Mr. Stachnik's company, for example, already has 1,000 advance bookings sold for trips to the Mall of America, a mammoth complex of 400 stores, theme park, and nightclubs opening near Minneapolis in August.
"These are not tours for the faint of heart," says Mr. Stachnik. "Everyone enjoys seeing monuments and oceans. But, boy, when they see that outlet sign, it's like the Oklahoma land rush when they fired the gun."
Retail industry experts use words like "exciting" and "entertaining" to describe the "Mills concept," pioneered by Washington developer Herbert Miller.
His Potomac Mills, built in 1985, is described by colleagues as the prototype that set the discount-mall business on fire. Potomac Mills was the first development to put a large number of discount and off-price stores together with the amenities of a regular enclosed mall, marketed to pull shoppers in for whole days at a time from up to 100 miles away - four times the distance the usual mall draws.
It worked. Statistics show the average shopper spends twice the money and time he or she would in a regular retail mall, explains Lynne C. Mitchell, Potomac Mills's marketing director. 'Focused' shoppers
An upscale retail mall averages $215 to $220 of sales per square foot annually, while Potomac Mills averages $280, explains Mr. Miller. The reason, he says, is that people who come here are "focused" shoppers, with a definite mission. The further the shopper travels, the more likely to spend money, he says.
"In the past 10 years, the No. 1 reason people shop is price and selection. Fifteen years ago, price was in the middle" of a list of reasons, Miller says. "You can see what's happened [in the economy]. So we put in one place the largest critical mass of value and selection. Our stores are almost twice the size of a typical mall."
Miller's "value shopping area" concept is booming in three other Mills projects: Sawgrass Mills, near Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Gurnee Mills, near Chicago; and Franklin Mills, near Philadelphia. Another Mills is being built east of Los Angeles. Stores in these malls run the gamut from Laura Ashley and Calvin Klein to discounters like Everything's a Dollar (where every item is a dollar).
So, are the bargains worth a long trip?
"To these shop-till-you-drop groups there's as much to the entertainment and pleasure of the hunt as there is to the 'Oh, I saved so much money' aspect," observes Kathy Pelino, director of tours and travel at Potomac Mills. "An $800 Escada blouse for $400 is one man's value, but certainly not another's."
"Here's an example of a deal," says Marilyn Klimenko, Mrs. Balciar's sister-in-law. She holds out a Pittsburgh Steelers T-shirt for 50 percent off - $8.99.
How does she know she's getting a deal?
"Personally, I look for 'clearance' or '50 percent off' signs."
Mrs. Balciar explains that the people paying to travel this far to shop are "seasoned shoppers" who know a bargain when they see one. One of the "super bargains" she came away with was a $5 blouse she'd seen in Youngstown for $20.