NYC's First Outlet Mall Offers Bargains, Instagrammable Voyage

(Bloomberg) -- For most Manhattanites, shopping at the outlets is often a full-day event that involves driving out of the city to a drab mall on the side of a highway.

The good news at Empire Outlets, New York City’s first outlet center that’s set to open this week, is the journey there requires no traffic, bridges or tunnels. The not-as-good news is it’s on Staten Island, still a schlep for many, though one with an Instagrammable voyage on the free Staten Island Ferry that offers waterfront views of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty. On arrival, dozens of stores and restaurants promising discounts and deals are just steps from the terminal.

NYC's First Outlet Mall Offers Bargains, Instagrammable Voyage

“We really wanted to skew and change what outlet shopping was really all about,” said Joe Ferrara, a principal at BFC Partners, developer of the $450 million project with a unit of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. “You’re going to have people flock to the stores and look at the view and make it a social media moment -- social media is today’s currency.”

The 340,000-square-foot (31,600-square-meter) mall will offer many of the traditional retail brands -- American Eagle, Banana Republic, Nike, Old Navy. The center, already about 80% leased, also hopes to lure visitors with waterfront restaurants and events. While there’s no set schedule yet, Ferrara said jazz bands, petting zoos and fashion shows are the types of experiences he has in mind. The center also recently signed a lease with a virtual-golf company.

Empire Outlets is taking a gamble by opening at a time when many traditional retailers are getting clobbered as the shift to online sales siphons off their shoppers. Malls full of old, stodgy stores have been failing, but get it right with experiences and the correct brands, and brick-and-mortar retail centers have a chance.

Ferrara said the discounts are part of what sets Empire Outlets apart from New York’s other retail offerings, like the Shops at Hudson Yards, a $2 billion luxury mall that opened on Manhattan’s far west side in March.

“We’re a very different customer from Hudson Yards -- we’re a center for all people,” Ferrara said. “From denim to diamonds.”

Empire Outlets is more likely to compete with places like Woodbury Common, an outlet mall about an hour north of the city. Tourists will probably make up a big chunk of the shopping demographic at the new center, Ferrara said. BFC Partners is in discussions with cruise lines about setting up excursions to Empire Outlets.

Ferrara also hopes to tap into the built-in audience of 22 million people who ride the Staten Island Ferry every year. While many take the boat to commute between work and home, some passengers are just seeking a free view of the Statue of Liberty. Now they’ll have a reason to disembark, he said.

“We’re definitely not your typical outlet center located on the side of a highway in the middle of the state somewhere,” he said. “We’re very, very New York-centric, from our public spaces to our design.”

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