Tuesday, March 02, 2010

A walk down the shopping mall

I've been thinking of shopping malls lately. I'm not sure why. It's not like visiting a mall is that much of an adventure anymore. It's a site for shopping and eating. A place to hang out if you are of a certain age. A vast, blocks long structure, surrounded by a sea of parking spaces. An ongoing edifice to satisfying needs and wants. The shopping mall is now ubiquitous. Every city has one, or four. The Mall has become the main street of suburban life.

Although the first enclosed mall opened in Cleveland in 1890, the shopping mall concept gained steam in the 1950's. Like much of the 50s, the enthusiasm for a new era lifestyle developed. Malls were part of this trend, as families moved to the suburbs, creating whole new cities that needed a retail presence. The Shopping Mall provided the suburbanites with a new way to shop. Climate controlled venues with multiple retailers all in one convenient location, and lots of room to park the Buick.

The decades turned, and the shopping malls continued to expand. The concept never changed much, just slightly updated to express the times. The focus was on utility. Malls were a shopping venue, not the entertainment complexes so popular today. Focus was on the "anchor tenant" - the big discount or general department stores, driving traffic to the mall, and hopefully into the smaller retail locations.

My first retail job was in a small suburban mall. I worked in the Bookstore there. Work was a relative term, since I just wanted to be in the store. I was 15, and too young to run the cash register, so my job was to shelf books and work on the sales floor. I was paid in books. It was a year or so later when the bookstore owner decided that, perhaps I could operate the cash register, and starting paying me in real money. Which was fine by me. I bought books, or turned my paycheck over to the neighboring record store.

This was the early eighties, and malls were not what we know them to be now. The mall was tired and gloomy. Poor lighting and ancient ceramic tiles, in colors like avocado and dirt brown. Little attempt was made to create any atmosphere in the echoing corridors. Santa was played by the maintenance man, and each year, at Easter, the mall management would open the bunny petting zoo to toddlers.

There was though, a sense of community. Retailers covered each others stores so you could have a bathroom break. The stores were all independents who lived in the community. Owners, managers and staff all got together for social and sporting events. We laughed, played and chatted out days away, standing at our storefronts. It was a Frank Capra movie, and across America the same sense of community, with just a small focus on consumerism was playing out in the same way.

But it was to be the end of an era. The recession rolled in. Stores began to close, empty mall spaces became more and more frequent. The customers dwindled, and the echos in the mall became louder.. Independent retailers, once the backbone of shopping malls, were pushed out in favor of cookie cutter national chains. Anchors moved out and retreated. Malls were closed and torn down. After thirty years of growth and replication, the shopping mall died.

It took a few years for "the mall" concept to recover. Retailers experimented with cheaper strip mall configurations. Large retailers built there own stand alone venues, and more recently, the "big box" format took hold. Eventually though, investors saw the shopping mall complex as a draw. But the tired sensible 1950's mall configuration was thrown out. The focus was capturing people's imagination and creating a destination for play. The mega mall was born. While retail is still an essential component, the focus, the essence of the new mall, is on entertainment. Multiplexes, dozens of dining options, kids play areas and special events. The Mall was not about the utility of buying underwear, but rather a place to hang out, play and connect with people.

This experience was also combined with the aspirational needs of the public. Glitz, glamour and brand names predominate. Fendi handbags sit like jewels in upscale retailers. The focus of shoppers turned to brand names. The customer expectation was a shopping destination that made them feel like a million bucks. Leather chairs to relax in, the sounds of local choirs and piano players. Valet parking. The mall is the new glamour centre for the middle class.

The new, "bright lights, big city" concept played across the country. Malls have been renovated and rejuvenated to meet the needs of consumer aspirational desires. And, as time has progressed and profit becomes the main objective, the glamor mall creeps into the specialty market. To the college campuses and international airports of the country. Drilling the experiential excitement into new, niche markets.

This is I suppose, progress. Bright lights and hyper excitement replace the main street mall of yesterday. Profits and ROI have replaced community and local focus. Mall rats took over the food court. The elevator music gets louder and louder. Santa is a hired professional from out of town.

At least the avocado tiles have disappeared.

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