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Welcome! Bienvenido! As the Dollar Drops, Malls Cater to Foreigners

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These savvy women from Dublin, Ireland, packed empty suitcases for their shopping excursion to Wrentham Village Premium Outlets in Wrentham, Mass. (Courtesy of Chelsea Premium Outlets)

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Cheery shuttle buses provide cheap, convenient transportation between Dolphin Mall and downtown Miami. (Courtesy of Dolphin Mall)

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Mary Finnerty, of Galway, Ireland, dubbed Woodbury Common Premium Outlets in Central Valley, N.Y., a "mecca for Europeans." (Courtesy of Chelsea Premium Outlets)

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Of the more than 800 Macy's stores, the largest and most famous is the flagship in New York City. (Kate Appleton/CNS)

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Macy's offers an 11 percent discount card, which is available in 10 languages, to international shoppers. (Kate Appleton/CNS)

Mary Finnerty works for a bank in Galway, Ireland, and when she flew to New York City in late November, she was the fifth in her 30-person office to make the trip that month. Why? To Finnerty, the explanation is obvious.

“The shopping,” she said, eyeing the expansive rows of bags at Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square. “The ratio of the euro against the dollar is brilliant, and the prices here would be cheaper anyway for American brands like Abercrombie & Fitch, which is a very big thing at the moment.”

Earlier that morning, Finnerty had braved what she described as a “frightening queue” at Abercrombie & Fitch to purchase sweatshirts that her children were eagerly anticipating. Finnerty has her compatriots partly to blame for the crowds. The volume of Irish tourists is expected to increase by 10 percent in the second half of 2007, compared with the same period last year, according to the forecasting firm Global Insight.

With the euro, the pound, and the Canadian loonie outpacing the weak American dollar, malls and stores across the country are expanding programs that cater to international shoppers in an effort to boost sales. “Everybody says it’s going to be a tough holiday season,” said Rosemary McCormick, a consultant with Shop America Alliance, a trade organization. “But you turn around and see the people coming in droves from overseas. That’s the customer you really want to attract.”

To that end, Shop America Alliance, which represents 200 malls, outlets and museum stores, has increased promotion of its multilingual services and shopping tours, which combine coupons and a goody bag with shuttle service to a mall or a discount on dining or entertainment. The most popular is a shop-and-shuttle tour in Las Vegas.

Miami is another major destination, and the six-year-old Dolphin Mall, located five miles west of the airport, stepped up advertising this month on TACA airlines flights from Latin America and in Travel Time, a luxury Spanish-language magazine in Chile and Argentina. International visitors receive a special discount card and are greeted in their native language when they arrive--and they’re coming by the busload.

“We definitely have noticed more foreign travelers, and they tell me they’re shopping more this year than in the past couple years,” said Lucia Plazas, Dolphin Mall’s trilingual tourism-marketing specialist. “It’s an important enough market to provide shuttle buses and to have me as a full-time employee.”

New York state’s Woodbury Common Premium Outlets--one of the best internationally known sources for high-end goods--and other properties run by Chelsea Premium Outlets have introduced lockers, currency exchange services and international shipping. “When you walk through our centers, you’ll hear greetings in four to six languages and see shoppers dragging along empty luggage to fill and take home,” said Michele Rothstein, Chelsea Premium Outlets’ senior vice president of marketing.

Even independent retailers like Art Van, many of whose 29 furniture stores are located in towns near the Michigan-Canada border, are making policy changes. Communications director Chris Morrisroe said that Art Van introduced delivery service and charge cards to its Canadian customers earlier this year and has stepped up advertising in Canadian media.

At the 520-store behemoth Mall of America, bargain hunters benefit from the lack of Minnesota state taxes on clothing and shoes, and international shoppers spend about 2.5 times as much money per visit as do locals. About 3 million foreigners flocked to Mall of America in 2006, and there has been an increase of 10 percent this year, according to general manager Douglas Killian.

Like Dolphin Mall, Mall of America provides a coupon book and shuttle service to foreigners and partners with tour operators to create packages that are sold abroad. Shop ’Til You Drop, a lodging and discounted-shopping package offered by Northwest Airlines and London-based Major Travel, allows people to arrive on Friday, shop until the mall closes at 9:30 p.m., and shop again on Saturday and Sunday--until about 4:30 p.m.--before catching a red-eye flight to London and heading to work on Monday morning. Killian calls it “unbelievable power shopping.”

All tourists do not shop the same way, and certain nationalities have earned reputations in the retail community. Killian said that visitors from Iceland have a preference for linens and appliances from Sears. “They buy so much stuff that some of the hotels set aside meeting rooms so that they can store their stuff,” Killian said.

McCormick of Shop America Alliance rattled off other stereotypes: Canadians, the largest group of foreign shoppers, go for the outlet bargains; Brazilians are big spenders; British tourists gravitate to classic American brands like Levi’s and Tommy Hilfiger; and the Japanese crave Louis Vuitton.

“People who have money and go around in those circles abroad want to look different,” said a Neiman Marcus sales associate and personal shopper, whose clients hail from Korea, Spain and Brazil. “Since our selection and styles are different than what’s available in their cities, they like to buy from us.”

Not only can an item purchased in the U.S. distinguish someone; it can also give the buyer bragging rights back home. “People want to show that they bought something at Macy’s when they’re back in South America,” said Heinrich Lubinus, a Colombian shopper who was at the Herald Square Macy’s to pick up some clothes and souvenirs. He knelt down to snap a photo of his toddler and wife in front of a massive Christmas tree strung with red and gold balls.

“I am one of those privileged people who can come here,” Lubinus added. “In the U.S., the cheapest store is Wal-Mart, and that is expensive in Colombia.”

E-mail: ksa2109@columbia.edu