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 Reading was enjoying its new status as the "outlet capital of the world." Tourists began flocking to Reading in search of bargains, filling once empty hotels and motels.
Before it became the outlet capital of the world, Reading was a red-brick factory town situated in the rolling Pennsylvania Dutch countryside. Long an apparel-manufacturing center, it lost several of its leading businesses to the South. In the 1970s chartered buses with license tags from New York, Ohio and New Jersey began to fill the narrow streets of Reading's outlet district. Vacationing families from New England, New York, Indiana and other states were carrying bundles of back-to-school garments under their arms and smiles on their faces.
At one time Reading was dominated by textile manufacturers. By the 1960s and early 1970s most of the textile companies moved south, but a couple that remained - Talbott and David Crystal - had outlets, mainly for women's clothing. Under the leadership of Kitty Solomon, the Berks County Pennsylvania Dutch Travel Association turned to tourism to increase area earnings. Arguing that outlet shopping could be a major attraction, she convinced the V.F. Outlet, Great Factory Store, Talbots, and David Crystal to join the association, and helped establish itineraries for tour brokers to stop at the outlets. The association made reservations for meals and lodging and provided tour guides for the visiting buses.
In the early 1970s there were only a few well-known Reading manufacturers who sold their excess merchandise, canceled orders and irregulars. Mrs. Solomon's association grew from an initial 11 outlets to 68 outlets in 1981. Among them were Vanity Fair, a maker of women's lingerie, and David Crystal, which made shirts with the tiny over-the-heart alligator.
The association distributed a brochure to bus companies, as well as nearby social groups, travel organizations, and clubs. The response was overwhelming. The Reading outlets became a favorite bus-trip destination. Buses with plates denoting they've driven from New Jersey, Connecticut, Virginia, Maryland, New York, Ohio, and the District of Colombia nestled into parking lots the size of football stadiums beside cars from every state in the union.
Where there were empty factory buildings deteriorating and blighting the neighborhoods, there were now thriving shops and restaurants. Outlets began relocating from other areas to get in where the action was. Older outlets expanded. The four original outlets were David Crystal, Vanity Fair, the Great Factory Store and Talbotts.
Before they were outlets, the Great Factory Store was a complex of small manufacturers. The Reading Outlet Center used to be a hosiery manufacturing company. Vanity Fair was a 5,000-square-foot area separated from the factory by a large drop cloth.
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.
In 1973, Ship 'n' Shore was bobbing along with a cut-and-sell operation in a creaky hosiery mill in the 800 block of Moss Street. Someone figured how to move mistakes and excess inventory by turning a 10,000 square-foot vacant area in the building into an outlet store. Word got around and the 800 block of Moss Street, along with the Great Factory Store in the 1100 block, skyrocketed into the retail mecca dubbed the Moss Street outlets.
The Great Factory Store, located in the 1100 block of Moss Street, was home to some of the city's premiere knitting and apparel mills, including the Chancellor Hosiery Wills, David Crystal Inc. dresses, Gail Knitting Mills, Rachman Manufacturing Inc., M&M Knitting Mills Inc., Berks Sportswear, I. Sherry Co., E. Schulze and Sons hosiery dyers and the sprawling DS&W Hosiery Co., which was housed in buildings on both sides of Moss Street. Manufacturers sent their overruns, cancellation orders and out-of-season stock to their outlets where the merchandise was sold for about 50 per cent off retail.
Before the outlets the standard tourist attractions were the Kutztown Pennsylvania Dutch festival, the Daniel Boone homestead and a dozen campsites. Not everybody likes historic sites. But everybody likes a bargain and everybody likes to shop. The "Catch Outlet Fever" became a disease that bargain hunters couldn't resist. With factory outlet stores offering discounts of 30-70 percent on everything from clothing, toboggans, power drills, pretzels, Christmas ornaments and luggage, the old brick town attracted shoppers from as far away as North Carolina, Massachusetts and Ohio.
New restaurants opened to serve the shopping crowds. Hotels and motels that once were filled only with the weekday businessman trade were now booked on weekends too. And some buses stopped at the Berkshire Mall, the city's major new shopping center.
The seasoned shopper parked in the purple section, in front of Reading's China and Glass outlet, for quick trunk trips to dump packages and for easy access to VF's three big beauties - Blue, Red, and Purple. Men shopped in the Big Blue and women in the Big Red. Racks and racks of nylon slips clustered in beiges, whites, and occasional blacks and pinks filled part of the auditorium-sized room. The next room exploded into combinations of cotton briefs of sherbet pastels. After stocking up on basics, the shopper hit Blue's third floor, the showcase for brand-name specialty shops like Laura Ashley, L.L. Bean, Canterbury of New Zealand and Cambridge Dry Goods. Other good bets were Carter's, where savings hovered around 25 percent on everything from infants' stretchies to jeans skirts; Reading China and Glass for discounted microware, dishes, and Farberware pots and pans; as well as Black and Decker, where the tools, toaster ovens and lawn mowers were labeled "blemished" for imperfections that ranged from a scratch to a reconditioned part.
Shoppers need nourishment and some of the outlet centers thoughtfully provided it. The VF complex had a basement cafeteria in the main building that serves typical lunch food in an atmosphere reminiscent of a high school cafeteria. Reading China & Glass had a bakery counter in the store, where you could grab a muffin or pause for a cookie break. Reading's Big Mill outlet center featured a food court.
Before heading for the heart of Reading, some stopped by the Danskin outlet, a few blocks from VF's entrance, for the half-price savings on children's leotards, tights and beribboned crinoline skirts. Others swung by Hiesters Lane on the edge of town or the David Crystal outlet, the granddaddy of all Reading outlets, at 13th Street and Rosemont Boulevard. Here you'd find Izod Lacoste sportswear for men, women and children.
The shopper who could still stand made the trek to Reading to stop by the Reading Outlet Center, a tired-lookin0g former factory whose stores were cut into somewhat confusing labyrinths of dead-end halls and narrow staircases. 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.
In 1986 Reading's centers lured more than 4 million shoppers who spent $340 million. The tourists, the pennywise, and the trendy came seeking the promise of cut-rate goodies. The prices were so good that the seasoned shoppers bought many of the same items even if they didn't need that many. During the holiday shopping marathon, up to 300 busloads of discount-seekers descended on Reading on a Saturday. 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.
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 1991, Reading was officially named the "Outlet Capital of the World." The phrase was registered with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office.
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 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 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 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.