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By the numbers
Here’s a look at Vera Bradley Outlet Sale attendance:
Annual attendance averages at other notable events:
•Fort Wayne Home & Garden Show – 40,000 to 50,000
•Fort Wayne Farm Show – 25,000 to 35,000
Source: Memorial Coliseum

The game is in the bag

Vera Bradley’s outlet sale evokes ‘thrill of the hunt’

Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Cindy Coheen drives a pink forklift as she loads pallets filled with Vera Bradley merchandise into a trailer to be delivered to Memorial Coliseum for Vera Bradley’s annual outlet sale this week.

Say the words “Vera Bradley Outlet Sale” and even those who don’t get it – get it.

The annual Fort Wayne event that borders on obsession among its followers has averaged more than 62,000 visitors over the past five years, is responsible for up to $6 million in economic impact each year and is easily Memorial Coliseum’s biggest annual event.

So when the shopping extravaganza – that began as a tent sale in 1983 – kicks off Tuesday, cash registers will ring until it wraps up Sunday.

But wait a minute. Isn’t this the day and age of online shopping? For crying out loud, $186 billion was spent on e-commerce transactions last year. And wouldn’t women rather shop using a smartphone or tablet?

The short answer is not when those colorful handbags are involved.

“It’s the thrill of the hunt,” said Jim Dion, founder and president of Dionco Inc., a Chicago retail consulting and training firm. “Shopping is still a very social event, and there’s nothing like grabbing a bunch of girlfriends and going shopping. The Internet can’t generate that kind of adrenaline.”

Especially, when it comes to a sale where merchandise is marked down 40 percent to 60 percent.

Vera Bradley has 65 retail stores, 11 outlet locations and has an expansion plan to add 14 to 20 stores a year. Last year, annual sales were $461 million. But despite the company’s retail store growth, shoppers are still drawn to the outlet sale after 30 years.

Dion said while the Vera Bradley brand is gaining recognition, its “hometown” outlet sale has a lure its stores don’t possess.

“There are some who people feel that the stuff at the outlets aren’t the real thing,” he said. “When they have an outlet sale where they feel the goods are directly from the company – and for cheap – they can’t pass that up.”

Those kinds of savings are what drew Lisa Dormire into the world of Vera Bradley. She is vice president for development at the Redstone Presbyterian SeniorCare facility near Pittsburgh. While visiting New York, an associate suggested Dormire look into making her next employee field trip to Fort Wayne.

“I knew about Vera Bradley but wasn’t a huge fan,” she said. “It wasn’t until I started planning to come to Fort Wayne that I realized what a following Vera Bradley has.”

Seats on the chartered bus filled up quickly, and now Dormire plans on making her way to Memorial Coliseum a second consecutive year this weekend.

“We have about 40 employees and friends who will make the trip,” she said. “It’s $250 a person for a two-night stay, plus hotel accommodations and meals. We end up making about $20 a head off of it, and we put the money into a fund we have for needy seniors.”

Alisha Gill is a 22-year-old Fort Wayne single mom who has yet to fall under Vera Bradley’s spell.

“I kind of look at it as something for older women, like something my grandmother would like,” Gill said. “Right now, I’m too busy buying toys for my kids to be buying purses. Don’t get me wrong, though, some of them are really nice.”

And that is the consensus of a lot of women, said Randy Brown, executive vice president and general manager at Memorial Coliseum. Besides offering discounted handbags, luggage, backpacks and other products, Vera Bradley is adept at “knowing its customer base,” Brown said, adding he doubts the sale’s popularity will fade anytime soon.

Admission each of the first three days is $5 and strictly controlled.

The retailer sells 4,000 tickets for each 2 1/2 -hour session. Admission is free on Friday and Saturday, but all shoppers must complete a registration either online or at the sale to be allowed to buy merchandise.

The company also imposes a $3,500 spending limit to help control inventory – and to prevent individuals from reselling the product.

“They know what they’re doing,” Brown said. “What Vera Bradley does also is a testament that they know how to keep it fresh.”

Melissa Schenkel, company spokeswoman, said the outlet sale’s popularity hinges on the fact that “there are some really great deals.”

And that is why the outlet sale likely isn’t going to fade anytime soon, Dion said.

“Not when people know they can get bargains,” the consultant said.

Dormire, the shopper from Pittsburgh, has come to a similar conclusion.

“It’s like big game hunting,” she said. “It’s hard to go back to the retail stores once you’ve shopped there.”