If you had to distill the Sawgrass Mills phenomenon into one image, it would be this: a lieutenant colonel in the Brazilian army weaving through a river of humanity while tugging around a tiny purple piece of carry-on luggage.
About 13 miles west of Fort Lauderdale, on the edge of the Everglades, is a place widely considered Florida’s second-largest tourist destination. It’s not a theme park. It’s not a beach. It’s not the Everglades. It is, according to the owners, the largest collection of outlet and retail value stores in the country.
The Sawgrass Mills mall has enough retail space to fill more than 40 football fields. From a discount furniture store to a Prada outlet, the more than 350 stores attract luxury shoppers and bargain hunters alike. Most notably, Sawgrass attracts destination shoppers from South America.
Lt. Col. Rubens Azevedo of Rio De Janeiro is a picture of what makes Sawgrass Mills something different from a normal mall.
Azevedo is visiting with 11 people including his son, wife and mother-in-law. They’ve been shopping at Sawgrass Mills for hours now (and, time allowing, may come back the day of their flight home).
“Sneakers,” Azevedo said, pointing to his foot, “these ones from Nike, I just bought a few minutes ago and I changed [into them] to start using to get softer. Softer!”
Azevedo said buying the same shoes in Brazil would cost 50 percent more because of taxes.
“Not only the sneakers,” said Azevedo, “but even the clothes are much cheaper.”
Dolls, mugs, video games -- all cheaper and all part of the Azevedo family’s shopping spree.
“Too much,” said Adriana, Rubens’ wife, “we’ve bought here four new luggage to go to Brazil.”
To buy so much stuff that you must also buy new luggage to haul it all home, this is quintessential Sawgrass Mills.
And it seems everyone has their own way of explaining the magnitude of this luggage phenomenon.
Gregg Goodman, president of The Mills, is no exception.
Travel agencies, he said, advertise entire tours around the mall. "And these tour operators have actually told us that they have to bring in a second bus for when people leave in order to bring in the luggage."
Sawgrass Mills is The Mills' flagship mall. Goodman emphasizes that its different from other "destination malls."
“We’re all about the shopping,” said Goodman. “We have very little in the way of entertainment, we don’t have a theme park in the middle of the project. We’re really what our general manager likes to call ‘power shopping.’”
Weigh Twice, Fly Once
More luggage lore comes from Nicki Grossman, head of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"We had a pilots association meeting six or seven years ago,” recalled Grossman, “and the head of the pilots association was telling us that when they take off out of Miami or Fort Lauderdale, and they’re heading to Brazil or Colombia or Chile or Venezuela, they have to weigh the plane again because they are aware of the tremendous volume of goods that [travelers] are taking back with them."
The convention and visitors bureau has numbers that show twice as many visitors travel to the Fort Lauderdale area to shop as they do to sight see.
The percentage is even higher for South American visitors.
Grossman said she always knew South American tourists wanted to spend their winters (South Florida’s summers for visitors who cross the equator) in the region. “We didn’t know that they intended to do it inside with a big old shopping bag instead of a bathing suit,” Grossman added.
One word of warning to prospective power shoppers: It's not difficult to get lost among Sawgrass Mills' roughly 11,000 parking spots -- something this reporter learned the hard way.