Linda Simmons remembers her excitement when Boise Factory Outlets opened the day after Thanksgiving in 1993.
The outlet mall, located off Gowen Road in Southeast Boise, offered Simmons and other shoppers bargain clothing from brands such as Levi’s, Van Heusen, Geoffrey Beene, Lily of France, Dress Barn and London Fog. Corning had a housewares shop. Kitchen Collections carried brands such as Proctor-Silex and Anchor Hocking. There was a Leather Loft store and a Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory.
“There was a Carter’s store and an Oshkosh B’Gosh store that were really good for kids’ clothing,” Simmons said by phone. “It was a great place to go shop for back-to-school clothes, work clothes. You could go out there and hit up eight or 10 stores and get great bargains.”
Not anymore. Today, just four retailers are left: VF, Pendleton, Eddie Bauer and Hanes-Bali-Playtex. The mall, now called Boise Outlets, also includes Trinity Learning Center, a child development program; Graffiti Fit Club; and a Jazzercise studio.
“It had a lot of good stores for a long time, but then it slowly fell off,” Simmons said. “I don’t even go out there anymore.”
The struggles of brick-and-mortar stores have much to do with the rise of online shopping, and Boise Outlets carries a stark symbol of that shift.
While a portion of the Boise Outlets parking lot is filled most days, the vehicles do not belong to shoppers. Amazon keeps a stable of delivery trucks there. Drivers leave their personal cars there, too, as they use the trucks to deliver Amazon packages to customers in Boise and nearby cities.
Outlet malls are typically located along freeways so there’s lots of drive-by traffic, but far enough away from a major city so the stores don’t compete with department stores selling the same brands. They’re considered destination stops, so they need to offer enough stores and bargains to make it worth the drive.
The outlet mall’s developers had initially looked at property in Meridian but instead picked the location at 6806 S. Eisenman Road.
The $12 million mall opened with great expectations, with 24 businesses occupying 76,000 square feet five years after Boise Towne Square mall came to town. S-Sixteen, an investment arm of the J.R. Simplot family, built the mall in partnership with Quality Centers, a Florida company that had built 14 other outlet malls, including one in Post Falls in North Idaho.
Sales were brisk. By the outlet mall’s first anniversary, 14 additional merchants had opened.
The glitter didn’t last. A 1998 Idaho Statesman story described “five years of mediocre sales and crowds.” At the time, mall managers hoped the pending opening of a Coldwater Creek clothing store and the Idaho IceWorld ice skating rink next door would revitalize the outlet mall.
They didn’t. Within a decade, the store count had dropped to 27. By 2012, only 16 stores were operating.
An economic downturn following the 9/11 terrorist attacks were partly to blame, outlet mall executives said at the time. But onetime outlet shoppers said the number of good stores had fallen and the ones that were left didn’t offer great bargains. They also said the outlet mall’s location on Boise’s eastern edge wasn’t convenient.
“The location and unreasonably high pricing is what, in my opinion, caused the demise of stores that are no longer there and the ones that remain,” Emmett resident Tim Rynearson wrote on Facebook in response to an Idaho Statesman reporter’s request for comments. “The concept of factory outlet stores is partly formed around cutting out the middleman so lower pricing could be realized. That didn’t happen at Boise Outlets, where pricing was just as high or higher than retail stores.”
Nampa resident Jill Linder said she used to shop at Boise Outlets with her mother, but over time it seemed like there were fewer bargains.
“It was just too remote, not a good location for something like that,” Linder wrote. “It wasn’t truly an ‘outlet’ mall. I think nearly all the stores had regular prices on stuff.”
Emmett resident Sue Collins-Vahlberg said she used to stop there on her lunch break when she worked at Micron Technology. While she’s taken kids skating at the adjacent Idaho IceWorld, she said she hasn’t shopped at the remaining stores.
“I think the reason it did not make it is because of its remote location,” Collins-Vahlberg wrote. “You forget it.”
Four hundred miles away, in Sparks, Nevada, outside Reno, Outlets at Legends attracts crowds Boise Outlets can only dream about. The open-air outlet mall, which resembles The Village at Meridian more than Boise Outlets, opened in 2008.
It features 45 shops with brands such as Nike, Adidas, Vans, Oakley, Gap, Old Navy, OshKosh, Loft and Zales. It also has several restaurants, including Blaze Pizza, Grimaldi’s, Fuddruckers and Chick-fil-A. Full-service Lowe’s and Target stores also anchor the mall.
The history of outlet malls goes back to the early 1900s, when a number of clothing and shoe manufacturers on the East Coast operated stores that sold excess and damaged goods at discounted prices. They were generally located on the grounds of the factory where the goods were produced, according to a history from Northwestern University.
Lingerie company Vanity Fair opened the first multi-store outlet shopping center in 1974 in Reading, Pennsylvania. Enclosed outlet malls were built starting in the early 1980s.
By the mid-1990s, there were more than 500 outlet malls located across the United States. Today, that number has dipped to 367, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.
Boise Outlets has gone through a number of ownership changes over the years. S-Sixteen bought Quality Centers’ 50% interest in 1996.
Portland-based Canterbury Real Estate Services bought the outlet mall and 22 acres of land for $7.6 million in 2001.
Idaho Property Holdings, a company established to hold real estate investments for a Les Schwab profit-sharing retirement trust, owned the outlet mall property from 2008 to 2015, according to Ada County Assessor’s Office records.
By 2015, then-owner WYSE Investment Services of Portland offered the outlet mall for sale for $3.5 million.
VPS3 LLC, a Vancouver, Washington, company, bought Boise Outlets in January 2016 from a private lender who had foreclosed on the property. The owner is an affiliate of Colson and Colson Construction Co., of Salem, Oregon, which builds retirement communities.
The company did not respond to Statesman inquiries for this story.
According to a lease brochure, VPS3 is seeking tenants for three of the mall’s five buildings, with up to 90,000 square feet available. The brochure also lists opportunities to build on the property.
In North Idaho, most of the 50 shops at Post Falls Factory Outlets, which opened in 1991, also have closed. Thomas Tedder, CEO of Tedder Industries, which manufactures gun holsters, bought the mall in 2016 and moved his company, which employs 150 people, to a 70,000-square-foot building on the property, the Spokesman-Review newspaper of Spokane reported.
Tedder spent $3 million renovating the outlet mall’s two buildings, which total 180,000 square feet. He now has 28 tenants, and the buildings are 90% occupied. Two businesses that were part of the outlet mall, Oriental Gifts and Food and L’eggs-Hanes-Bali, have remained.
“We just made a space that looks nice,” Tedder told the Spokesman-Review. “We have good rates, and businesses and potential tenants are seeing that, and they think it’s a good space.”
At Karcher Mall in Nampa, Idaho’s oldest shopping mall, the new owners have begun tearing down 81,000 square feet in the middle of the mall for new parking. Rhino Investments of Livermore, California, plans to open up the space, attract new businesses and create housing behind the mall.
The mall, which opened in 1965, has struggled for years, with more than a third of the storefronts empty.
Simmons, who lives about a mile from The Village at Meridian, said she hasn’t abandoned outlet malls altogether. Last September, she traveled to Las Vegas to see the Eagles in concert. While she was there, she shopped at Las Vegas North Premium Outlets, one of two outlet malls in Las Vegas.
“They had a lot of good stores, and I bought some things,” she said.
What if the Boise Outlets were resurrected?
“If it was worthwhile, I would go out there again,” she said.