[Special to VISIT FLORIDA]
Armando Neito is the typical Sawgrass Mills customer.
He's from Brazil, has an energized bargain-hunting look in his eye and, like lots of other shoppers in Florida's largest outlet mall, walked around the shopping center one recent afternoon carrying a huge suitcase, complete with airline luggage tags.
"It's so I don't have to pay for the cart," Neito, 23, explained. "I just got here, and already bought two sneakers and two shirts."
Customers throughout the mall wheeled around the suitcases they brought from the plane and ones they purchased at the mall. They stuffed them with bags from Nordstrom Rack, Saks Fifth Avenue, Kenneth Cole, Lucky, Burberry and some 350 other discounted, luxury-brand stores.
With 2.3 million square feet of shopping and dining, Sawgrass Mills has become a must-do stop on the tourist itinerary.
Buses pick shoppers up from South Beach and Fort Lauderdale hotels, downtown Miami and even directly from the airport. The malls offer discount coupon books to tourists and lockers to store their belongings.
Outlet malls are particularly popular for Latin American shoppers, who welcome the steep discounts on name-brand items that can cost three times as much at home. Although Latin American cities enjoy plenty of large shopping centers, designer items are often out of the average shopper's reach.
"From what we hear, outlet business is booming," said Linda Humphers, editor-in-chief of Value Retail News in Clearwater.
She said Florida has 15 outlet centers, with one more opening in 2014 in Pasco County.
The Simon Property Group, which owns Sawgrass, reports that its Orlando Premium Outlets-Vineland is the most productive center in its portfolio with sales north of $1,000 per square foot, she said.
Outlet malls date as far back as 100 years, when apparel stores and shoe factories on the East Coast started offering excess and damaged goods to employees, according to a Northwestern University study. In the 1930s, a men's clothing manufacturer opened the first outlet not adjacent to the store and, 40 years later, the first multi-store outlet opened.
The first enclosed outlet opened in 1980 and soared in popularity over the next 20 years. By the end of this year, there will be 187 such malls around the country. Sawgrass is the largest.
Outlet malls are usually located some distance from regular shopping centers, near a major highway, and are known for offering designer brands at steep discounts.
Sawgrass, about 45 minutes from Miami and 30 minutes from Fort Lauderdale, was the mainstay of South Florida outlet shopping since it was built in 1990. In 2001, Dolphin Mall regional value shopping center in West Miami-Dade joined the competition by offering a variety of large discount stores such as Marshalls, as well as outlets Last Call Nieman Marcus, Banana Republic Factory Store and Bloomingdale's outlet.
With 240 stores and 1.4 million square feet just five miles from Miami International Airport, Dolphin fits the niche of the layover guest. Buses run six times a day from the airport to pick up people who have hours to kill before a cruise ship or long-distance flight.
About 41 percent of the mall's customers are tourists, with Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Peru and Canada most common. Like Sawgrass, Brazil is increasingly the country the customers call home. A whopping 85 percent of the mall's shoppers are Hispanic, said mall spokeswoman Madelyn Bello.
"The buses come full," Bello said. "It's convenient because they don't have to travel as far to find the stores they're looking for. Everyone wants more value. Everything is a lot more expensive in their countries."
Half Price Tours offers buses to Dolphin Mall for $25 and to Sawgrass for $30.
"I think it's the selection they like," said Jeff Bechdel, spokesman for Half Price Tour Tickets, (http://www.halfpricetourtickets.com/). "They come from South America and other parts of Latin America, and they tend to come and return. When they return, they tend to know exactly what store they're heading for. Then, when they are done shopping, they're looking for a luggage store so they can buy more."
The shopping tours are particularly popular for rainy days. Droves of South Americans head there in July during their summer breaks, he said.
"It really is a full day," Bechdel said. "There are restaurants, food courts and entertainment if you get really burned out from shopping."
Ace Tours (http://www.acetoursinc.com/tours.html) offers transportation to Sawgrass Mills Mall for $40 each way for up to 2 passengers, with any additional passengers paying $15 a person from Fort Lauderdale area hotels and beach. Most major hotels provide information about the shopping excursions at their concierge desk.
Mercy Vargas said she and her friend probably could have found the classic-style Reebok sneakers they were looking for at a store back home in Peru, but they'd have had to search the city to find them.
"I never heard of this store, but apparently everyone comes here," she said while enjoying lunch at Sawgrass, a stop on a South Florida tour she won by meeting sales goals at the cosmetics company she works for in Lima. "The problem I have is that I wind up spending an hour and a half, two hours in one store. I have been here four hours and I haven't seen anything close to half the mall."
With three sons to shop for, Vargas carted around a new $119 Calvin Klein suitcase to hold her new purchases.
"In Peru this would probably cost $380," she said. "Maybe I could find it in Lima for a decent price. But this way, I can say, 'I bought it in Miami!'"