When Lisa Bolle pulled into the Ellenton Prime Outlets parking lot Thursday afternoon, she didn't need news reports to tell her something in the area wasn't quite right.
She was able to find a parking space.
After a fuel tanker exploded on Interstate 75 Wednesday, a few blocks away from the outdoor mall, the threat of miles-long traffic jams appears to have cooled business for many stores in the 130-store complex.
"Oh, it's definitely slower," Bolle said. "When I got here, the parking lot was bare."
Bolle, who was shopping for clothes for her three children, said although driving north on I-75 from Bradenton to the outlet went smoothly, she's not looking forward to driving back.
"I'm looking out at the traffic, looking how I'm going to find an alternate route," Bolle said. Behind her, on the other side of a fence, a mile-long line of cars crept along, waiting to bypass the charred freeway overpass.
Despite the slowdown, the mall was hardly a ghost town – albeit largely populated by store employees.
With northbound Interstate 75 reopened after Wednesday's tanker blast, employees and customers at the nearby 130-store Ellenton Prime Outlets are finding ways to get back to work, and to keep on shopping.
For Wendy Bonaddio, the assistant manager at the mall's Coach store, the closure of the southbound lane of I-75 turned her usual 10-minute commute to her home in Bradenton into a nearly hourlong trip Wednesday evening.
Anticipating another lengthy drive south at the end of Thursday, she said fellow employees are preparing to adapt.
"We're still trying to find other ways. The back roads — their dark, they're scary — we don't know them well," Bonaddio said. "But we're pretty savvy. We're going to learn the back ways."
While the outlet mall's marketing manager, Sarah Ozgun, says it's too early to tell what kind of impact the fiery accident will have on business, individual store managers are reporting a surprising Thursday afternoon turnout.
"I expected it to be absolutely dead today. Yesterday, traffic really stopped. All we had were people left in the mall — and they didn't know how to get out," Bonaddio said. "But today, you know, store traffic is pretty good."
And for some girls, it's just hard to keep them away from a new pair of shoes.
JoAnn Lamothe, visiting the outlets from Tampa, consulted with a map to find her way around the southbound traffic snarl – and to a new pair of camo-pattern converse sneakers. She and her family and friends braved an alternate route via back roads and U.S. Highway 301.
"We came down just to check out the mall," Lamothe said. "We just looked on a map and followed it."
Melisa Green, the assistant manager of the Bass Shoe Outlet, said customers on Thursday morning seemed undaunted by the previous day's accident.
"I had a customer come in a little earlier — she said getting here was easy," Green said. "But she said getting back would be fun."
Green added that many of the employees in her store live south of the mall, in Sarasota and Bradenton.
"Getting home, it's going to be havoc," she said.