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.
Lieutenant Colonel Rubens Azevedo of Rio De Janeiro is a picture of what makes Sawgrass Mills something different than a normal mall.
Azevedo is visiting with 11 other people including his son, wife and mother-in-law. They’ve been shopping at the 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 change it 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.”
This is quintessential Sawgrass Mills, to buy so much stuff that you have to buy new luggage to get it all home.
“Well,” said Nicki Grossman, head of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, “[Sawgrass Mills] has created new meaning to the word attraction in Florida.”
The convention and visitors bureau has numbers that show twice as many visitors travel here to shop as they do to sight see.
It’s even higher for South American visitors.
Grossman said she always knew South American tourists wanted to spend their winters (South Florida’s summers) 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.
Gregg Goodman is president of The Mills, a subsidiary of the Simon Property Group which owns Sawgrass Mills and a number of other malls. He says travel agencies package entire tours around Sawgrass Mills.
“We’re all about the shopping,” said Goodman of the differences between Sawgrass and other destination malls. “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.’”
One word of warning, by the way, to prospective power shoppers.
Sawgrass Mills has like 11,000 parking spots -- something this reporter learned the hard way.