May 2011

Call of the Mall, a Review

by Michele Reeves on May 20, 2011

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I should preface this review by saying that I have a total and unabashed professional crush on Paco Underhill. There. I said it. It’s out there. Objectivity compromised.

In the breezy Call of the Mall, published in 2004, Paco takes the reader on a personal tour of the mall…top to bottom. At various points, different shoppers and experts join you on the tour, but Paco is the master of ceremonies and the reader is along for the ride to observe and learn.

The book flows quickly and easily, so much so that one could make the mistake of thinking it too frothy, but, as usual with Mr. Underhill, there is much to digest about the strengths and weaknesses of the enclosed mall: the horrible exterior architecture, the lack of activation in the sea of parking, the store mix and how it has changed over time, how the mall is laid out and the subsequent challenges to merchandising, the rise of entertainment in the mall, the demographic draw of the mall, how other countries put their cultural stamp on the enclosed mall…it’s all there.

Although this edition was published some time ago, it is still very topical, with the exception perhaps on trends regarding mall relevancy. For instance, the recent recession has hit strip malls more heavily than enclosed malls, on average, which is a bit counter to the conclusions of this book. I also found myself wanting to dig more…wanting more in depth analysis on the future of the mall, and a clearer idea of where exactly the enclosed mall still thrives, where it does not, and why. These are important questions because we’ve had a roughly ten-fold increase in the amount of retail space in the US since 1960, and as a result, I don’t believe it likely that we’re going to be absorbing a lot of new shop square footage without cannibalizing existing malls. Where is this abandonment likely to happen, how do we prevent it, in what ways can we mitigate the effects?

In fairness to Mr. Underhill, a lot of my aformentioned questions were not really within the scope of Call of the Mall to answer.

Highlights for me included:

  1. His observation that enclosed malls are built by real estate people, not by merchants, and that this is evidenced by their design: walled fortresses ringed by a sea of unattractive parking that no retailer in his right mind would create as an enticing entrance to a shopping experience.

  2. The dramatic shift in how we demonstrate our wealth, a casualty of which is the jewelry store. In the past, successful men descended into the guarded inner sanctum of a jewelry store to discreetly purchase baubles for their women — wives and mistresses — who proudly wore these very public symbols of their man’s success. In this day and age, it’s hard to picture someone like Mark Zuckerberg dipping into high-end jewelry stores with regularity to buy outrageously expensive items for his girlfriend, a la Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. In fact, the idea just seems silly. The other change impacting the jewelry biz is that women actually buy their own pretty bangles now, and they have vastly different expectations about store environment, product selection, and pricing than the model that has worked for generations.

  3. The way other countries put their own cultural stamp on the enclosed mall, particularly with the incorporation of fine dining, healthy dining, and/or high-end grocery stores. I remember when I lived in Taiwan, I would shop at the Japanese Sogo department store, which occupied a huge multi-story building. The basement was a wonderful supermarket and the ground floor had fresh bakeries, amazing prepared food and small restaurants. It put an American food court to shame! (I am swooning at the memory.)

  4. I learned that fragrance being located near the front door of department stores is a holdover from the days when the main entrance would open to a street filled with horse manure. Fascinating!

  5. His insights about how teenagers use the mall, particularly girls, were riveting.

    Teenage girls love malls best, I think — and here, according to a survey, is what they say they want in malls: a hangout-type Internet café-coffee shop (the kind of slacker paradise you find in cities, usually peopled with unemployed dot-commers); movies theaters; big seating/socializing areas; places that boys might like; amusements, such as Ferris wheels and so on; and sports, including bowling alleys, batting cages, miniature golf, tennis. It’s a long list.

    One teenage girl tried to describe what would be in her perfect mall.

    “I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Washington Square in New York,” she began, “but it’s this park, and they have these tables with like built-in checkerboards on top?”

    These kids crave cities — they want to be a part of the human spectacle that exists whenever people come together. Sadly, what we’ve given them instead is malls.

Photo by Flickr user Christopher Woo used under a Creative Commons license.

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