Friday, March 21, 2014

The Call of the Mall

Call of the Mall: the Geography of Shopping
© 2005 Paco Underbill
240 pages

Paco Underhill wants to take a little walk with you through the local mall, to see it with his eyes- the eyes of  a "retail anthropologist" and marketing strategist who scrutinizes malls as the environments they were built to be: shopping arenas.  Born amid the automobile-guided infrastructure buildout of the 1950s, shopping malls have been the crown jewel of American consumerism, dedicated spaces of recreational consumption of goods.  The walk, which begins in the parking lot and travels through the cavernous mall's innards, going even down the twisty hallways into the hidden bathrooms, takes reader on a guided tour of the territory, where even toilets don't escape scrutiny. The Call of the Mall is a little business history, a little social musing, and a little advertising/marketing examination.  Written more for consumers than business students, it's an entertaining account that offers most another perspective on shopping malls.

Although Underbill spends most of his working life walking around malls, his feelings regarding them are mixed. He seems to enjoy them -- the long stretches of flat marble or tile, air-conditioned walks down channels filled with eye-catching displays and even more eye-catching people --  but his job requires being both appreciative and critical. Throughout the mall tour, Underhill's perspective reveals that for all their flashiness, malls do a lot things badly.  Music stores, for instance, have gone downhill since records gave way to CDs, because record sleeves could be used as eye-catching displays. CD covers are as useful for displays seen at a distance as postage stamps.  Underhill is also surprised that no store has ever considered using the mall restrooms as a display area for its own equipment (but considering how much volume mall toilets get, would any retailer want to chance his toilet being associated with badly-maintained restrooms?).  There are greater problems, too, unavoidable consequences of the malls' status as artifacts of suburbia.  Malls are in fact very artificial environments, little island awash in a sea of pavements. A lot of their foot traffic is from teenagers who are there because they have nothing else to do;  suburban teens have no place outside of home and school to go to.  Underhill makes the point repeatedly that malls are limited by their environment.

In revealing what malls don't do well, Underhill also points out their strengths, and explains to readers, uniitated shoppers, why they might work the way they do.  He points out, for instance, that the spaces near entrances and exits are consigned as low rent.  One would think otherwise considering they receive greater traffic than the interior of the mall, but Underhill comments that as people are entering a store, they need space to adjust, to adapt to their new environment. As they are making the transition, their mind ignores the first few stores they pass. He also elaborates on some of the strategies that the real estate giants who own the malls employ when deciding who rents what space;  different stores have different markets, and there are dynamics to be taken into consideration. A low-end and a high-end jewelry store side by side can enhance one another's business.  Underhill goes into several stores to scrutinize their specific practices; he comments on the high-end jewelry store's physical additions, for instance, how they use a black brick facade to minimize window space, sending a clear message of exclusivity to hoi-polloi outside who can't afford $80,000 necklaces.

Shopping malls are a mixed bag, an experiment  in retailing that may change as time passes, or may fail entirely. Demographics are changing, writes Underbill, as is technology; online stores are giving brick-and-mortar (or in suburban cases, plywood and concrete)  an increasingly hard time,  and this work was penned ten years ago, before Amazon Prime and similar services.  The Call of the Mall will probably frustrate marketing students looking for a catalog of tricks of the trade, because while Underbill offers general suggestions and reveals a few practices,  he's not going to give away the farm considering he makes a living as a consultant helping businesses  organize their physical space. For the ordinary person on the street -- or in the aisles -- The Call of the Mall is an entertaining look into the workings of places we might spend a lot of our time in.

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