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Bargain hunters lap up luxury at outlet store

Tampa Palms resident Debra McKenna's recent trip to the Catalog Outlet store proved fruitful. She bought a rug, pillowcases and a coverlet there.

By JANET ZINK
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 1, 2002


Beth Johansen treks twice a month from Tiera Verde to Tampa in search of bargains on linens.

Each time, she scores.

Her little-known destination: the Catalog Outlet store in an industrial park just north of Tampa International Airport.

"It's incredible," she enthused after sifting through a shelf full of deeply discounted Charisma sheets, shams and bed skirts by Fieldcrest. "You cannot find better deals than what you find here. Especially on high-end linens and towels."

On this particular morning, she's on a mission of mercy. In her purse is a swatch of fabric from her sister's bedroom curtains. She hopes to find a matching coverlet.

The Catalog Outlet store, which opened in August 2001, sells surplus stock from the Linensource, a luxury linen catalog, and Casual Living, a gift and women's apparel catalog. Both are owned by The Thompson Group, a company that also sells cigars through the Thompson Cigar catalog.

Carlo Franzblau, who grew up on Davis Islands, attended Berkley Preparatory School and graduated from Harvard University, owns The Thompson Group with his father, Robert Franzblau, and sister, Alix Dorr.

Robert Franzblau entered the mail-order business in 1960 when he bought Thompson Cigar, which was founded in Tampa in 1915. The Thompson Group still holds bulk mail permit No. 1, Franzblau said.

The company employs about 650 people in its Tampa warehouse, call center and corporate headquarters. Through the catalog and Web site, the Thompson Group ships nearly 2-million orders each year throughout the United States, Franzblau says.

Discontinued stock, slow sellers and returned merchandise end up in the Catalog Outlet store. Warehouse shelves are crammed with linens by famous makers such as Laura Ashley, Wamsutta, Smith and Johnson and Fieldcrest, as well as the shop's own brand.

"We carry very little below a 200 thread count. We go all the way up to 600 thread count on the most expensive imported Italian sheets," says Franzblau. "We really focus on the master bedroom, but we also have looks for other bedrooms."

In addition to bed linens, Catalog Outlet stocks comforters, towels, draperies, pillows, clothing, gifts and, occasionally, cigars.

"On the average, the majority of our merchandise is between 40 and 80 percent off," said Sharon Stetsky, the Thompson Group's manager of excess inventory.

Recent bargains included a queen-size Charisma dust ruffle by Fieldcrest with a list price of $149, on sale for $30; a Smith and Johnson twin quilt marked down from $169 to $40; and a Wamsutta sateen queen flat sheet that normally sells for $45, going for $18. A garden statue from the Casual Living catalog, originally $70, was offered at $20.

The inventory varies greatly from event to event. Up to 2,500 new items are available at every sale. Stetsky said she typically sells about 25 to 30 percent of the merchandise on display each day, and then she brings out more.

"We make an effort to bring in a significant amount of new stuff, because that's what brings the customer in over and over again," Stetsky said.

That's what brought Tampa Palms resident Debra McKenna back for the third time. She filled her cart with linens and a rug but was particularly excited about a coverlet with a $10 price tag.

"For $10, I can change it just to get a new look," she said.

The Catalog Outlet

The Catalog Outlet, on Anderson Road south of Sligh Avenue, is typically open every other week. Sales are scheduled for Nov. 6-9, Nov. 20-23, Dec. 4-7 and Dec. 18-21. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays. Call 901-5733 to confirm dates and times or to get directions.

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