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Shopping on Empty

TIMES STAFF WRITER; Hilburn is the Times' pop music critic

It’s nearly eight hours into our marathon shopping expedition at the outlet mall that bills itself as the West Coast’s largest, and we’re starting to unravel. Since the shops opened at 10 a.m., my wife and I have been on a mission to cover all 145 or so stores, checking every possible rack for those coveted red-tag specials.

We’ve already spent $362 on everything from a lined denim jacket at the Levi’s outlet store (marked down 50%, from $120 to $59.99, thank you) and a piece of gift crystal at Waterford ($85 to $35, almost 60% off) to six books at the Publishers Warehouse (from $182 list to just $26, or approaching 85%).

We started off full of adventure, driven by the image of all those waiting bargains in the 600,000 square feet that comprise the sprawling, outdoor Prime Outlets at Gilroy, which is half an hour south of San Jose.

But we were eventually worn down by too many aisles, too many fruitless searches for the right sizes, too many trips to take the merchandise back to the car.

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The end came in the Reebok store around 7:30 p.m. My wife tried on one style after another, measuring the feel of the shoe against the size of the savings. To complicate matters, Reebok was offering 50% off on a second pair, which meant I had to find a pair too to take advantage of the bargain. Soon we were both sitting on the bench, trying on shoes, then walking a few steps in them before repeating the process. After a quarter hour, the only thing we could agree on was that it felt good to sit on the bench.

So we headed for the car. As we threw the final armful of shopping bags in the trunk, we noticed that the lot--jammed most of the day--was now largely empty. Other shoppers had long ago given up.

Later on the patio of Jardines, a popular Mexican restaurant in nearby San Juan Bautista, we tried to piece together why we ever thought it would be fun to spend all day at an outlet mall.

It started innocently enough. My wife and I have been coming here for years during our annual Christmas vacation in Carmel, but we never stayed more than three or four hours at Gilroy’s outlet mall. Hey, we thought, if four hours is good, wouldn’t eight be twice as much fun?

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Just because we came up with the wrong answer doesn’t mean that outlet shopping can’t be entertaining--especially if your idea of the perfect shirt is the one that comes at a 50% reduction.

Veteran shoppers know you often can match or even beat outlet prices at a retail store if you catch the right sale. But an outlet mall is the only place where you can find so much merchandise on sale all the time--and Gilroy’s is the best we’ve seen in California. Which doesn’t mean that everything in an outlet mall is a bargain. They have become so popular (more than 4.2 million people a year shop at Gilroy alone, according to mall operators) that a few malls have begun letting in regular retailers (with regular prices). Gilroy, however, says it is a pure outlet center.

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From downtown Los Angeles, it took five hours to drive here on a Friday afternoon up Interstate 5, crossing over to Gilroy on California 152 just south of Santa Nella.

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There are motels in Gilroy, and the area advertises itself as the garlic capital of the world. But we couldn’t figure out anything we’d want to do with garlic except eat it. So we spent Friday and Saturday nights at the Wyndham Garden Hotel in Sunnyvale, up U.S. 101 on the northern edge of San Jose. It’s an exceptionally tasteful hotel whose weekday rate of $159 is discounted on weekends to $84 (including a generous breakfast buffet for two).

On Friday night, we took in a California League baseball game at San Jose Municipal Stadium, a great old ballpark on the south edge of San Jose where box seats are $6.

The crowds at Prime Outlets at Gilroy can be fierce on some weekends, but they were manageable this trip. The single-story stores are separated into four clusters (with various food courts), which means you’ll end up walking almost two miles if you go end to end.

Stores range from housewares to luggage, but most deal with clothing or shoes. Some familiar names: Bose, the Gap, Jockey, Levi’s, Corning Revere, Le Creuset, Mikasa, Samsonite, Adidas, Florsheim, Hush Puppies, Kenneth Cole, Nike, Nine West, Maidenform, Timberland, Ann Taylor, Esprit and Kasper.

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Here are some personal favorites:

OshKosh B’Gosh. This clothing store is everything you want in an outlet. All the merchandise is 30% to 40% off retail, and there are racks offering an additional 20% to 50% off. Sizes are plentiful. We bought a baby dress marked down 60%.

Publishers Warehouse. The savings aren’t all that different from what you’d find on clearance tables at the big bookstore chains. There are just more tables. My favorite purchase: a pictorial history of Topps football trading cards slashed from $59.99 to $4.99. I’m not a pro football fan, but how could I resist a 92% reduction?

Anne Klein, Jones New York and Liz Claiborne. Some great bargains in all these stores, but finding the right size sometimes feels akin to winning the lottery.

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Dexter Shoes. There’s a reason why billionaire Warren Buffett bought into this company: great quality at low prices. My wife and I each bought a pair (hers double discounted from $70 to $29).

Reebok. The crowds are so thick in the Nike store, you’d think it was the Hard Rock on Saturday night. I prefer Reebok.

We figure we saved $503 this trip on all the merchandise we bought. So come Christmas, I’ll be lacing one new pair of walking shoes during our four-hour visit--our own reduction plan.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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Budget for Two

Wyndham Garden, 2 nights: $182.00

Meals (3 lunches, 2 dinners): 103.00

Baseball game, incl. parking: 16.00

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Gas: 42.00

FINAL TAB; $343.00

Prime Outlets at Gilroy, U.S. 101 at Leavesley Road, Gilroy, CA; tel. (408) 842-3729. Wyndham Garden Hotel, 1300 Chesapeake Terrace, Sunnyvale, CA 94089; tel. (408) 747-0999.


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