The fall of the mall: We are still shopping, but the citadels of retail are fast becoming irrelevant
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 15 June 2004)

My first and last visit to the gigantic West Edmonton Mall, around 1990, compressed into two hours the feelings that people have been reporting since the original enclosed shopping mall opened in a Minneapolis suburb in 1956. First there was fascination, then a certain amusement (how often do you see an indoor swimming pool with a sandy beach and a wave machine?) and finally ennui. It was a fast-forward history of suburban retailing; West Edmonton, which is just like a mall only more so, demanded attention, then quickly deadened it.

It now seems possible that West Edmonton Mall and lesser citadels are on their way to becoming historical artifacts. No one could have predicted this three decades ago, when surveys said that Americans spent more time at the mall than anywhere else except home and work, and The Economist praised the controlled environment of malls as a "potent device for generating sales."

Today we are apparently living through the twilight of the malls. They remain essential in many places, and some still prosper, but they long ago lost the charm of novelty, and social change has eroded their economic base. Some of the reasons come through in Call of the Mall (Simon & Schuster), by Paco Underhill, a much-discussed "retail anthropologist" who lives by telling corporations how to sell.

They became successful when real-estate developers brought department stores and a multitude of small businesses under the same roof. Big and little enterprises did business side by side, providing profit for themselves and liveliness and variety for the public.

But department stores, traditionally called the "anchor" of a mall, have been quietly dying for years. They began to lose customers when women discovered they had no time for traditional visits, which once might involve the beauty parlour and the restaurant as well as shopping. And while this crippling change was underway, department stores were also attacked by their enemies from above and below: Big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Costco stole customers at the low end while streets lined with fashionable stores won over the high-end buyers.

When malls could no longer rely on department stores to draw crowds, they began installing clusters of little movie theatres. That proved a temporary solution. Suburban entertainment centres with names like SilverCity have attracted movie exhibitors with lower rents and outlandishly spectacular environments; and anyway, movie attendance has been falling.

Since no mall owner has come forward with a fresh idea, "de-malling" has begun. Some malls are being replaced by condominiums or office buildings. Some owners tear down their buildings and reinvent the kind of outdoor streets where people shopped till the 1950s, which means the small stores don't have to heat and air condition huge spaces.

Underhill, a self-described "research wonk" and the owner of a company with the wretched name of Envirosell Inc., advises corporations from The Gap to Coca-Cola on how they can obtain more of the consumers' money. He spends his life studying the way people move through stores, figuring out why they buy this and not that and what will encourage them to visit the back of a store rather than just checking out the merchandise near the front. He mounts cameras in stores and for each research project makes thousands of hours of videotape. He can tell clerks what not to say (don't ask customers if they need help "because that provides an opportunity to say no") and he can tell designers that people entering stores immediately turn slightly to their right. His prose has an annoyingly calculated spontaneity, intended to approximate conversation, and much of the time he comes across as a professional know-it-all.

He's half in love with malls, half appalled by them. An American diplomat's son, he spent most of his youth outside the United States and then discovered malls as both exotic and homey. "It's where, for the first time, I felt completely swallowed up inside white-bread middlebrow median-income America." Since then, he's decided that the mall is the only place you can see the middle-class American family in action, expressing themselves in fundamental ways through their decisions about buying and eating.

He argues that malls are ugly because they're built by real estate people, not retailers, and he finds much to criticize in the way both the malls and the storekeepers deal with the public. Maps in malls are always incompetent, products are displayed without imagination, washrooms hidden at the end of long dark corridors. He confesses that he's not much of a buyer himself; he's an observer, by inclination as well as profession. Even on a beach holiday he seeks out a mall and studies it. "There are more than 100 American malls to which I could give you accurate driving directions off the top of my head. I don't know whether to be proud or ashamed."

While malls have traditionally been linked to the rise of consumerism, their decline doesn't mean people no longer want to buy. Extreme shopping remains a major sport across the continent, a point demonstrated by the appearance of a genre of publishing that didn't exist in the 20th century, shopping magazines like Lucky. In 2000, an editor at Conde Nast in New York realized, as she tells it, that women have "more satisfying relationships" with catalogues than with fashion magazines, because catalogues show them clothes they want in sizes that fit them at prices they can afford. Why not, then, produce a catalogue-like magazine about buying things, especially clothes?

Until 2000, magazines had editorial pages (not, mainly, about products) and advertising pages (mainly about products). Lucky, "The Magazine About Shopping," fused the two elements, to the delight of a large public. Soon it was selling a million copies and other publishers were devising imitators. Readers, the editors report, object to only one aspect of its content, a question-and-answer feature called Ask the Editors. They say they don't want to read it because it has too much text. (These are dedicated, specialized shoppers with no time to spare.)

Last fall, Advertising Age gratefully named Lucky the magazine of the year, commending it as a magazine for women that doesn't "muddy that focus with anything about relationship, health or career advice." It deals exclusively with what really matters. While malls are fading, consumerism goes from strength to strength.

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