WRENTHAM -- "That's right, we're almost done," a woman's voice behind me is saying. "We're almost there. You're doing really good. Just one more and we can go home, OK, sweetie?"
I expect to see a woman with her overstimulated toddler, a red-faced menace in the china-crowded aisles. Instead, when I look around, she's stroking the arm of her husband. He looks as dazed as I had imagined the toddler, but (one hopes) less likely to break into ear-splitting screams, so I return to the task at hand. Wedgwood's Nantucket Basket -- my cousin's china pattern -- is on sale. What does 20 percent off come to? Is the set irregular? And is it less or more expensive than the Lenox platter four stores back?
Outlet shopping is a marathon of long lines, sore feet, and complex word and math problems, the likes of which you haven't seen since high school. (If a set of 550-count Polo sheets is 20 percent off, and Amanda has two coupons, one for $25 and one for 7 percent off, and they can't be used together, which is the better deal?) The holy grail that awaits: that one perfect deal, a luxury-quality item at a steep discount.
That's the promise, anyway. But do they deliver? Getting an early start to holiday shopping, I hit two drastically different New England outlet centers to comparison-shop.
Wrentham Village Premium Outlets
Like many other women do, I "volunteered" my husband, Christopher, to come along on a shopping expedition to Wrentham one Sunday. It was raining, and the traffic crawled at a stately pace, thanks to the New England Patriots, who were playing a home game just a few exits away.
Wrentham is a destination development built explicitly for daylong spending sprees -- a strip mall-cum-faux village with shops in identical buildings, formed into five courtyards with names like Liberty, Patriot, and Colonial. All the courtyards open up onto the pseudo-small town "Wrentham Street."
A quick check of the directory at the entrance let us know that the two restaurants were at the other end of Wrentham Street, and we marched past scores of stores on our way to lunch: Versace, Wedgwood, Ralph Lauren, Barneys, Jones New York, Etienne Aigner, Hugo Boss, Off 5th - Saks Fifth Avenue Outlet, indeed.
Unfortunately, the luxe atmosphere did not extend to the restaurants. Our choices, Ruby Tuesday's and Friendly's, were pedestrian, but because they were the only options aside from the busy food court, the wait was 45 minutes.
We used the lag time to pop into the Williams-Sonoma Marketplace, which sells goods from Williams-Sonoma and sister stores Pottery Barn and Hold Everything, and soon realized that we would have been better off using the time to plan a strategy. There was no way even a dedicated shopper could do a complete survey of these 170 stores in just one day. Suddenly, I understood why so many people took advantage of some local hotels' "Stay and Shop" packages.
As the day progressed, we came to appreciate the thoughtful people who had created the tidy little town. Covered walkways kept the cold drizzle off our heads. Wide sidewalks let us maneuver around other shoppers. Five bathrooms meant there was never a line, and the stalls are wide enough for several shopping bags. Parents toting small children can rent strollers for $3 an hour.
In Izod, we realized a little bit of research could have saved us cash as well as time. As I bought visors for my mother, the cashier asked if we had a AAA card. "It will save you another 10 percent." As it turned out, a AAA card will get some kind of discount at more than 100 of the stores, including 15 percent off at Black & Decker, where I had just bought a chainsaw for my father.
On our way to the information booth to pick up a AAA application (and see if we couldn't get retroactive discounts), we were surprised to hear live singing. Nicole Ware of Beverly was belting out show tunes from the doorway of the Fudgery, luring people in with the promise of free samples and fudge demonstrations.
Unfortunately, we caught her on one of her last weekends before she left Wrentham for Berklee College of Music. But while it lasted, in a complex designed to anticipate your every need, the one unplanned moment was the sweetest.
The next weekend, my husband begged off the second part of my outlet experience. So I enlisted my friend Nikki, who buys everything off the World Wide Web -- even groceries -- and we set out for Freeport, Maine, where the outlet shopping could not have been more different from Wrentham's. Beginning with the food.
The lobster rolls at Old World Gourmet, a tiny deli on Route 1, are a full quarter pound of lobster meat, lightly dressed with a touch of mayo and served on a warm crispy roll. On a late-autumn day, with a cold breeze blowing salty air in from the ocean, the rolls made for a happy bite of summer.
Unlike Wrentham, Freeport is not a planned complex. There's no need to project a faux small town feel, because this is a real small town, albeit one that has become something of an outlet mecca, thanks to L.L. Bean, the world-famous outdoor products store. Abercombie & Fitch occupies a lovely 1905 building that once housed the Carnegie-built public library. Offbeat shops like The Mangy Moose stand cheek-by-jowl with international chains like Polo Ralph Lauren. Old houses with screened porches serve as B&Bs on Main Street. And you won't find any Versace, Barneys, or Hugo Boss here -- too New York for this Yankee setting. (You will find names, though, that aren't usually associated with outlet centers -- DownEast Treasures with Thomas Kinkade, the Freeport Knife Co., and Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers.)
However, the real-deal atmosphere also means that there are no covered walkways and no conveniently located bathrooms. And, as we discovered right away, you could certainly use a map, which you can pick up at any shop or order in advance from www.freeportusa.com. Only about half of the shops face Route 1, while the rest are tucked into side streets or are even miles from the center of town. We totally missed Cuddledown of Maine, for instance, which turned out to be much closer to where we ate lunch than to where we parked the car.
Like most everyone else, we parked in one of the huge lots behind the Bean store, where the lots are named for wildlife (we parked in Moose) and license plates from Wyoming to Alabama showed that many people had driven a lot farther than we to explore L.L. Bean.
The sprawling complex of the flagship store is more amusement park than shop. A huge, two-story Bean boot marked the entrance, and inside were a trout pond, a "rock" ramp for testing climbing boots, and a nest of huge dog beds for napping in the corner of the children's department. The Dew Drop Inn offers pastries, soup, and hot cider.
For all that, however, the main store is not an outlet. Shoppers can expect to pay full price for everything. Procrastinators and insomniacs may take advantage of the fact that Bean is open 24 hours a day, every day, but bargain hunters head down the hill to the Factory Store.
There, we found rows of backpacks, bins of tote bags, and racks of flannel pajamas -- all at fire-sale prices. Why was otherwise top-quality merchandise going at such a discount? Monograms. L.L. Bean customers can -- and do -- return any item for any reason, even if it's monogrammed or engraved. I spent a busy 20 minutes rooting through the canvas tote bags until I found one with my sister-in-law's initials on it. Nikki contemplated buying a toboggan engraved with "Love Grandma and Grampy -- Christmas 2001." We just couldn't figure out how to get it in the car.
As we drove home in the twilight, with sore feet and a trunk full of presents, we decided that if shopping on Boston's Newbury Street is a walk in the park, then outlet shopping -- at a faux small town or a real one -- is a three-day hike in the White Mountains. You need planning, provisions, and a comfortable pair of shoes.
Amanda Ferry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.