My wife and I steeled ourselves and drove down to the Potomac Mills outlet mall on Friday, where it was…pleasant. It wasn’t overcrowded (or even crowded) in that Potomac Mills Terror kind of way. The parking lot didn’t look like a football stadium parking facility, with cars stretching across the horizon. I wasn’t constantly worried about being ankle-clipped by small children and the most annoying thing was getting a little too aggressively sales-pitched by kiosk vendors, some of whom were selling things you expect to see only at a county fair.
If you’re not familiar with Potomac Mills, you may not understand how odd this is. In the past, it regularly made the Top 10 list of most-visited Virginia destinations — which is something when you consider all of the historic and vacation destinations the state holds. And while the mall has been there for more than 25 years now, it was renovated a few years ago and doesn’t look old or tired. Finally, the state of the economy should, if anything, drive shoppers to this mall — it’s certainly the best place I’ve been for a wide variety of genuine bargains.
And yet here we were, shopping on a Friday nine days before Christmas in relative ease and comfort. We parked close to a mall entrance — mind you, not long ago, it wouldn’t be unusual to park a quarter-mile away at this time of year — and even the Prince William Parkway wasn’t very zoo-like.
Something odd was happening here.
Yes, the economy is probably part of it. Prince William County, where the mall is located, has been particularly hard-hit by the housing scam of the last decade. But Potomac Mills shoppers come from all over, including waves of shoppers from closer in to the D.C. metro area, where the recession has not hit nearly as deeply as in many other parts of the country.
But even a bad economy wouldn’t explain this. That’s when it hit me: This was my only my second Christmas shopping trip of any kind this year. In fact, I almost never go shopping at retail facilities any more. I do it all online now.
A few weeks ago, two guys and a truck showed up at my door and dropped off the big-screen TV I ordered from Amazon. It arrived two days after I ordered it. That’s better service than I could have gotten at a lot of local retailers, and shipping/delivery was free. It’s also not an option I would have considered just a few years ago, simply because I wouldn’t have trusted an online retailer with that sort of a purchase.
But time and experience have eliminated that concern, and online shopping has disrupted everything.
It’s surprising when I make a mental inventory of where I’ve made major purchases or have performed most of my purchasing research in the last decade-plus. House: Online (I didn’t even see it in person before I signed a contract). Car: Online (I just went to the dealership and picked it up). Eletronics: Online. I still buy my food at grocery stores (although I could order it online and have it delivered, but I still like the meet the meat before I buy it) and I do some clothes shopping at retail outlets, but that’s about it.
So the world has changed. I suspect Potomac Mills is a ghost town now in slow season. I can’t be sure; it’s probably 15 miles from my door, but that’s the first time I’ve been there in more than a year. The place has gotten thousands of dollars from me in the past 20-plus years, but it’s clear those days are ending.