MENTION Italy and what comes to mind are good food, great culture and fantastic shopping. A strong euro, however, has meant that tourists are thinking twice before handing over their credit card to take home that Gucci handbag. There's good news for those looking to bag designer labels at a bargain - as long as you're not fussy that it's a season old - discounts of up to 70 per cent can be had at factory outlets.
These days, factory outlet shopping is fast becoming a must-do, alongside visiting the Coliseum and Tower of Pisa, on the itinerary of tourists heading to Italy. While some labels, like Prada, have their own 'space', big malls featuring several top brands in a one-stop location have sprouted up around the country, making it more convenient for foreign tourists to make their way there.
Travellers to Florence, who do their pre-trip research on the Internet, will find several companies offering 'shopping outlet tours'. That's one easy way to get to the outlets as they are often located outside the main cities, and can be tricky if you don't have your own wheels. One popular outlet, The Mall, which is about half an hour's drive from Florence, offers a daily shuttle service which ferries tourists from the city, right from the doorstep of your hotel if it's centrally located.
The Mall is laid out in an open plan concept with a central landscaped garden, and most of the stores have tall window displays facing the garden. Shoppers tend to make a beeline for the Gucci shop which also happens to be one of the biggest stores in the centre, and it's easy to see why. You could walk out with one of its highly prized monogrammed bag for 170 euros (S$343), a pair of sandals (also monogrammed so you could flaunt them with the bag) for 125 euros, and a belt for your husband for 65 euros. Of course, that's just on the lower end of the price spectrum.
If you've got a bigger budget, you could easily blow 400 euros for a more updated handbag, even with a 30 per cent discount. Other outlets here popular with shoppers include Burberrys (where you can pick up its signature trenchcoats at half price), Tod's (loafers from 108 euros), Armani (jeans from a low 25 euros) and Fendi (shoes and bags up to 50 per cent off).
If you are driving, it's actually pretty easy to get to The Mall. Just get onto the A1 highway from Florence in the direction of Rome. Exit at Incisa and keep right, taking the road to Leccio. This scenic route will take you through typical Tuscan countryside with rolling plains, vineyards, and the occasional abandoned farmhouse. You'll come to a huge roundabout and have to just follow the sign indicating The Mall. It's quite impossible to miss it.
Getting to the Prada outlet, on the other hand, is a bit more tricky as there are no indications at all. We actually had to stop and ask a local policeman who gave us very precise instructions. From the same A1 highway, exit at Valdarno and continue through the town of Montevarchi. Keep on going until you see an Agip petrol station on the right. Turn left at the traffic junction just after the station. Stay on this road until you come to a car park in front of a huge gate fencing in a big nondescript warehouse. You have arrived at the Prada outlet.
If you go in summer, there's no mistaking it because there're likely to be busloads of tourists milling around the front, waiting to get in. The outlet has a ticketing system limiting the number of shoppers into the store at any one time. Take a ticket, pop into the chic cafe attached to the outlet for a quick coffee, and back out again to wait for your number to be flashed on the electronic board above the entrance.
Luckily on the inside, the warehouse bears more resemblance to a stylish boutique - a giant one at that - tastefully divided into sections to help the fashion junkies suss out the best buys. The ladies' section occupies one half of the space while the men's is in the other half. There are shelves upon shelves of shoes, racks after racks of clothes, and plenty of helpful assistants at hand to answer any queries or search for sizes. Apart from Prada, one can also find Miu Miu, Jil Sander and Helmut Lang under the same roof. As for bargains, I did find a smart black Prada jacket I liked for 100 euros and was very tempted by the shoes which were priced as low as 50 euros.
I would have walked out with an 80-euro wallet but realised that I wouldn't have much cash, or credit, left after I'd gone through the various outlets. One of the first major factory outlet malls to open in Italy is at Serravalle, about an hour's drive south of Milan. With more than 130 stores spread throughout 37,000 sq m of space, McArthurGlen Designer Outlet Serravalle is easily one of the biggest of its kind in Europe. The architects of the mall have created a little 18th century Italian village here, with life 'centred' round two piazzas.
Store fronts look into smaller squares which are joined by winding alleys. Here, one finds more than just fashion wear for men and women. The variety of labels represented here is what draws the crowds. From jewellery (like Bulgari) and home accessories (Bose and Villeroy and Boch) to sports wear (Nike and Adidas) and kids' wear (Diesel Kids and Petit Bateau), shoppers can expect discounts of up to 70 per cent.
If there's a need to recharge your energy, bars, cafes and restaurants are scattered throughout the village for that pick-me-up. All-in-one complexes like McArthurGlen Serravalle appear to be the way for designer factory outlets to operate not just in Italy but around Europe as well. Most of these are likely to be located near a capital city, so the next time you're in Rome, Paris or Madrid, rather than spend time dashing around the city to do your shopping, think about visiting the outlet malls. Besides saving time and money, with all the designer tags on you, you'll go home looking like a million bucks.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Italy