Anyone who knows me will know I have an unhealthy obsession with shopping at the Ashford Outlet.
I will freely admit I’ve fallen hook line and sinker for their ‘everything is a bargain’ marketing spiel.
Pre-pandemic, I enjoyed snagging a so-called bargain at the shopping centre, grabbing a bite to eat from a quirky street food truck and browsing brands you don’t usually see on your average high street.
Now, post-lockdown, I might even enjoy shopping there more than ever – here’s why.
Since June 15, many more stores at the Ashford Outlet have reopened allowing people in Kent to spend their hard-saved lockdown cash.
Many of the shops in the colossal shopping centre have been closed since the beginning of the pandemic and have only been allowed to open their doors again with strict social distancing measures in place.
However part of the fun of any Outlet trip is the pointless wandering you get to do to come full circle.
And coincidentally wandering aimlessly is something quite hard to do while social distancing.
We took a trip to the shopping centre to see how the new system works.
The car park
As anyone who has ever been to the Ashford Outlet knows, the car park is nearly always rammed.
Be it a Wednesday afternoon, Saturday morning, Christmas eve, Black Friday… it’s hard to get the space you want.
You want to aim to be closest to the stores you’re going to spend the most time in. God forbid you have to park in the overflow.
When I pulled in I was pleasantly surprised to see a line of socially distanced cars. It wasn’t eerily empty as per the lockdown scenes, but I could easily park.
Perhaps the Outlet wasn’t as busy as usual?
‘One way please’
As soon as I got out of my car it was immediately clear radical changes had been made.
Every shop has been plastered in signs and stickers directing customers with the utmost precision.
There are crosses in front of doors where you can’t enter, with footprints near those you can. Each store has a sign outside indicating how many people should be allowed inside at one time.
Most also have a member of staff on the door. They’re a bit like bouncers, but instead of asking for ID they hold out hand sanitiser and in some cases gloves and masks for your disposal.
On the main drags there isn’t a clear one way system, but shoppers are urged to keep right in some places.
The walkways to and from the car park are marked with signs which say ‘one way please’.
Some, but not many, shops are still closed – with notices explaining this in the window.
Others have implemented similar systems inside. I could count on two hands the amount of people I saw try to enter Starbucks from its new exit. Oops.
Because the pathways along the ‘old Outlet’ are so wide it was relatively easy to socially distance yourself from other shoppers.
I did wonder whether a one way system throughout would have been even better, but I suppose that would have sent some people on an eternal loop, stuck circling round the shopping centre.
There is a long queue for Nike
During the worse weeks of the pandemic the Outlet was entirely closed, with none of its stores deemed ‘essential’.
Now following the government’s relaxation of lockdown rules, the majority of the big brand shops are open and for the most part there is no queuing.
The Outlet seemed almost spookily quiet compared to normal. But I wasn’t complaining, as I could happily shop away without a mad scrum for bargains.
If anything things felt more relaxed than tense, although I suspect as things get busier this could change.
I was reminded of this fact when approaching some of the busier stores, as of course there were some exceptions.
There were large lines for Nike, which was fenced off away from the path actually gave some shoppers a chance to sit down.
Serious shoppers know that if you’re in for a long haul shopping trip then you’re probably going to need to loo at some point.
Luckily the Outlet has loads, most of which had one way entrances and exits along with ample cleaning supplies.
Post-lockdown going to a public toilet has been one of the things that has made me feel most vulnerable but that just wasn’t the case here.
Everything was clean, tidy and well organised. Tick.
As well as this, it’s hard not to work up an appetite shopping and the Outlet usually has a vast selection.
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As my visit happened before July 4 – there was a limited selection on offer.
The main sit down restaurants were closed but many of the food trucks were open for business.
Of course that is likely to change today as lockdown restrictions ease further.
As shopping experiences go, it was actually rather relaxing. I got everything I wanted – and I didn’t have to contend with crowds to do so.
People were largely respecting the social distancing measures in place