Outlets first appeared in the Eastern United States in the 1930s. Factory stores started to offer damaged or excess goods to employees at a low price. After some time, the audience expanded to include non-employees. In 1936, Anderson-Little (a men's clothing brand) opened an outlet store independent of its existing factories. Until the 1970s, the primary purpose of outlet stores was to dispose of excess or damaged goods. By the 1970s shoppers from all over the East Coast of the United States and Canada were being lured into Reading by its dozens of factory outlet stores.
In 1970, M.O. Lee, then-president of VF Corp., suggested holding a sale one Saturday morning at the company's Berkshire Knitting Mill in Wyomissing to get rid of excess Berkshire International inventory. The sale was a smashing success, so a bigger sale was scheduled for two weeks later. That one was an even bigger hit. As a result, a factory store was opened to sell Berkshire and Vanity Fair surplus products. The factory store eventually grew to an outlet center - the first of its kind in the country.
The original factory store opened by VF Corp. in 1970 was a 5,000-square-foot area separated from the factory by a large drop cloth. The VF Outlet Center expanded over the years by attracting other outlet retailers to the 34-acre site, which straddled the border between the boroughs of Wyomissing and West Reading.
The Chamber of Commerce and the Berks County Travel Association began actively promoting Reading as the "outlet capital of America." A billboard on U.S. 222, about 10 miles from Reading, read "Catch Outlet Fever."
The next thing anybody knew, groups began arriving on "outlet outings." They came on buses from as far away as Canada. And the groups kept coming, particularly on Saturdays. Their buses took them from one outlet center to another. Roger Rachman, head of the company that operated the Great Factory Store outlet center, estimated that more than a million out-of-town shoppers visited Reading in 1977. The Great Factory Store was an outlet complex located in the 1100 block of Moss Street.
Only two blocks away was the Reading Outlet Center, a collection of stores in what once was a hosiery factory. The Reading Outlet Center opened in 1973 in a cluster of five former factory buildings. In 1984, the center was acquired by Charles T. McMurtrie, who doubled the center to 10 buildings.
Reading Outlet Center
The Reading-area outlet centers in 1986 lured more than 4 million shoppers who spent $340 million. In 1989 more than 300 outlet stores in six complexes in and around Reading attracted more than 6 million visitors a year. Shoppers spent $250 per visit and outlet revenues were $975 million.
In 1991, Reading was officially named the "Outlet Capital of the World." The phrase was registered with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office.
The outlet industry reached maturity in the late 1990s.The number of outlet centers nationwide leaped from 142 in 1988 to 329 in 1996. By 2005 the number of outlet malls sagged to 225.
In 1996 a three alarm arson fire, out of control for more than four hours, destroyed the former Great Factory Store in the 1100 block of Moss Street. The building was vacant since July 1985.
After thriving for years with 70 stores, the Reading Outlet Center had fallen on hard times. By 2002, only 20 stores remained. Tour bus traffic trickled in at the rate of about 10 to 20 buses per weekend, compared with about 100 at the center's peak. By 2004, Reading Outlet Center was down to one tenant, Old Navy.
In 2016 the Shuman Development Group completed converting the former Reading Outlet Center building no. 10 at 702 N. Eighth St. into a retail and apartment building. The building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was opened in 1904 as the Curtis, Jones & Co. shoe factory. It was then used as part of the Reading Outlet Center from 1974 to 2001. When redevelopment was 65% complete, a two alarm arson fire occurred on October 18, 2014, severely damaging the 2nd and 6th floors, and roof. The fire damaged fabric was removed, the structural system was reevaluated, and the project was completed in December 15, 2016.
Curtis, Jones & Co. Shoe Factory
In October 2017 developer Alan W. Shuman was issued a permit by the city to begin the demolition and redevelopment of the building known as Reading Outlet Center One at 801 N. Ninth St. The rundown interior of the massive structure at 801 N. Ninth St. is rich in history. The original owner, Nolde & Horst Co., started making hosiery there around the start of the 20th century. Nolde & Horst went out of business around 1954. The total demolition and renovation project includes demolishing the northeast section and the entire stretch along North Ninth Street. The redevelopment plan includes 80,000 square feet of retail space. The $12 million project also includes 110 parking spaces and two retail pad sites. The project is scheduled to be completed as soon as the end of 2018.
Nolde & Horst Co.
In 2001, the VF Outlet Center was still getting an estimated 5 million visitors a year. That year it was voted the top U.S. shopping destination by the American Bus Association, with about 6,000 buses traveling to the center in a year. With more outlet centers opening in other places the VF Outlet Center became less of a regional draw. In December 2016, with only about a third of its retail space leased, the VF Outlet Center was sold to Equus Capital Partners. Constructed in the early 20th century, the site started as the home of the Berkshire Knitting Mills, which employed thousands of people. At its peak, from the 1920s through the 1950s, it made more women's full-fashioned stockings than any other plant in the world. The knitting mills and related textile operations formed the backbone of the early development of Wyomissing, which has since become a regional hub of business activity. The borough still thrives long after it ceased to be a center of industry.
Berkshire Knitting Mills
In November 2017, work began on transforming the VF Outlet Center into a mixed-use retail and business complex. Redevelopment plans include the demolition of approximately two-thirds of what is known as the Blue Building and all of what is now the Red Building. When completed in 2018, the campus, with UGI Energy Services as the anchor tenant, will house retail shops, boutiques and restaurants, and will feature walkways, benches, street lights and greenery. The VF Outlet itself will eventually move into the Designers Place across Eighth Avenue.
Reading & Berks County Outlets