Mallified – Does expanded consumer consciousness signal the end of the traditional shopping mall?

by Geoff Olson

source photo: © Roza | photo editing: P. S. Bromley

Recipe: “Take 100 acres of ideally-shaped, flat land. Surround it by 500,000 consumers who have no access whatever to any other shopping facilities. Prepare the land and cover the central portion with 1,000,000 square feet of buildings. Fill with first-rate merchandisers who will sell superior wares at alluringly low prices. Trim the whole on the outside with 10,000 parking spaces and be sure to make same accessible over first-rate under-used highways from all directions. Finish up by decorating with some potted plants, miscellaneous flower beds, a little sculpture and serve sizzling hot to the consumer.” – Commercial architect Victor Gruen. From Recipe for the Ideal Shopping Centre, 1963.

When I was a kid in the sixties, my mother used to bundle my sisters and me into the Corvair and head from Trenton to the nearby shopping centre in Belleville, Ontario. During one such excursion, in preparation for my oldest sister’s birthday, she loaded the groceries into the car, but forgot one item on the roof. It wasn’t until we were well on the highway, when a box tied with string flew in through an open back window, into my oldest sister’s lap. Yelling with excitement, we untied the box and were amazed to discover a cake with “Happy Birthday Janice” written on it. I always found department store shopping fun as a kid, even without big box stores or megamalls. All my family had was the nearby “Rite-way” and the very occasional flying cake.

My childlike delight in shopping didn’t last. Instead of developing sensitivity to peanuts or bee stings, I became allergic to malls. By my twenties, I avoided them as much as possible. This went deeper than a knee-jerk anti-consumerism of a young Chomsky convert. I had a visceral distaste for the places, which increased over time. To this day, every time I enter a mall, I feel my chain being yanked every which way. It’s always a chore, even the times when I can remember where I parked the car.

Popular culture reflects our ambivalence about shopping malls. In George Romero’s 1978 horror film Dawn of the Dead, zombies head for the mall, lurching off escalators in pursuit of the living. In other horror films, a mall scene is invariably accompanied by ominous music and the impending death of some disposable character. Malls don’t fare much better in other genres. In Paul Blart: Mall Cop, the lead character is an overweight shmuck whose pratfalls accidentally immobilize criminals. In Seth Rogen’s Observe and Report, the head of security at the Forest Ridge Mall falls for the dim-witted girl at the makeup counter, who cannot cool her suitor’s desire, even after she vomits on his pillow.

Yet mall-goers are often painted in serious mainstream media as Visa-wielding patriots. In the winter of 1999, Seattle television news anchors applauded shoppers for braving the city’s downtown core and its warren of underground malls, in spite of street protests against the WTO. Immediately after 9/11, the Bush administration encouraged shell-shocked Americans to keep on shopping, lest the terrorists win. South of the border, shopping is as American as Yankee stadium or the hydrogen bomb – and nowhere is the freedom to choose greater than at the mall.

Ironically, the first shopping malls were not found in the American Midwest, but in the Muslim world. Isfahan’s Grand Bazaar dates to the 10th century. The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, built in the 15th century, still stands as one of the largest covered markets in the world, with more than 58 streets and 4,000 shops. But these dusty retail Meccas lack the one thing that’s made middle-class shopping a singularly North American experience: air conditioning.

Air conditioning, the marketers of the early twentieth century hoped, would be the pheromone that would entice WASPS and worker bees out of their stuffy homes and into the buzzing hives of commerce. “Let those who cry for fresh air through open windows from the out-of-doors be reminded that it doesn’t exist in the congested city,” proclaimed a 1926 issue of The Journal of Heating, Piping and Air Conditioning. “So air conditioning has come to make available every day the best in atmospheric comfort that nature offers so spasmodically.”

All well and good, but it took the post-war years for someone to build a really cool joint for shoppers to inhale. That someone was Austrian-born architect and American immigrant Victor Gruen and his joint was his first fully enclosed, climate-controlled shopping mall. His flagship creation was the Southdale Center, which opened in the Twin Cities suburb of Edina, Minnesota, US, in 1956.

Gruen did his homework. Deciding to “empirically” prove that air conditioning would liberate untapped consumer energy, he created a chart that listed the distance and time “which the average healthy human being is willing to walk, under varying environmental circumstances:”

– In an unattractive environment (parking lot, garage, traffic-congested streets): 2 minutes or 600 feet.

– In an attractive but not weather-protected area during periods of inclement weather: 5 minutes or 1,250 feet.

– In a highly attractive environment in which the sidewalks are protected from sunshine and rain: 10 minutes or 2,500 feet.

– In a highly attractive, completely weather protected and artificially climatized environment: 20 minutes or 5,000 feet.

Mid-century American shoppers considered the first shopping malls to be beautiful places where they could escape their daily worries. They could aimlessly amble about, bathed in bright lights, brand names and cool, clean air. Marketers tried every trick in the book, and invented plenty of new ones, in an effort to draw in more enthusiastic consumers, more often.

Retail architects developed “atmospherics,” an applied science of shopping psychology. They designed mall entrances so that shoppers had to make three turns upon entering from the parking lot, making it more likely they’d forget where they had left their cars. Harder materials were installed in the corridors than in the stores, subtly guiding the shoppers to the checkout tables. The Muzak firm researched which musical tracks made shoppers eat faster, try on more clothes, linger longer or move on more quickly.

In his book Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back, Douglas Rushkoff notes how microscopic this research has become. A company called Envirosell examined videotapes of shoppers and discovered that bigger sales counters made buyers self conscious about buying one small item. Women, “butt-brushed” by another shopper while inspecting an item, won’t buy it. All the nuances of human shopping behaviour – a sublimated form of primate food-gathering – have been investigated and aimed back at the consumer.

Soon after customers enter a mall, their expressions change, their eyes grow blank, their jaws drop and their path through the mall becomes more random. This zombified demeanour was coined “The Gruen Transfer,” in honour of the creator of the modern shopping mall. Rushkoff says it was defined as “the moment when a person changes from a customer with a particular product in mind to an undirected impulse buyer.”

Given all this subliminal persuasion, the average mall-goer might as well be a drugged rhesus monkey in an immense laboratory it can’t possibly understand. “As environmental manipulating became more overt, consumers couldn’t help but notice their moods changing,” writes Rushkoff. “An afternoon at the mall used to be an exhilarating experience. Now, thanks in large part to all the psychological manipulation going on, it was draining.”

The manipulation and energy draining now even extends to nonhuman forms of life, such as the “replascaped” palm trees found in high-end megamalls. These monstrosities are a seamless botanical mix of real and fake. Grown in controlled nursery conditions, the palms are “harvested once they have reached a desired height and girth, and then carefully dissected in a laboratory resembling the back room of a funeral parlour,” according to the fascinating 2000 urban study Mutations. Skilled artisans are brought in to reconstruct the tree, weaving the bark segments into a hollow PVC pipe. The top of the pipe has steel receiver heads for attaching preserved fronds. Planters are not necessary. With the roots amputated, one maker of replascapes advises, you “merely bolt the trunks to the floor.”

All this highly sophisticated trickery offers diminishing returns to overamped customers, who subliminally sense something is off when they enter a mall. Not surprisingly, the decline of new mall construction in North America began in the nineties, long before the credit crisis, so this may not be entirely about the offshore outsourcing of jobs, depredations of big box stores or even the capitalist crisis of overproduction. Across the US, there are “dead malls,” complexes abandoned due to increased traffic and tenancy. These shopping Stonehenges, which can sit unused for years until restored or demolished, attract urban explorers and photographers who document their decline on websites like

While mall growth is slowing or arrested in North America, the developing world is going ape over US-style retail gigantism. Today, the worlds largest shopping complexes makes Gruen’s early efforts seem like the prehistoric outposts of cash-strapped primitives. The biggest, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, is Berjaya Times Square. Advertised at 7,500,000 square feet, it’s four times bigger than Metrotown. Beijing’s Golden Resources Mall takes second place, at 6,500,000 square feet. Third and fourth place go to megamalls in the Philippines.

The trend in North America is building big box stores and open-air malls, or at least to renovate existing malls so there is more natural light. The golden age of classical, windowless shopping malls, with their underground passageways, is now kaput in North America. In Canada, only two new shopping malls have been built since 1992, both of which are in Ontario. So what do architects have up their sleeves to replace the Rodney Dangerfield of commercial architecture, the lowly shopping mall?

In Life Inc., Rushkoff relates a pleasant scene in North Carolina, with people of all ages strolling a cheery main street, window-shopping. There’s a fountain in the town square, adjacent to a quaint clothing shop, with a Colonial-style storefront. A friendly postal worker waves as Mexican workers hop off a truck to manicure the shrubbery. From the author’s description, it seems less like Norman Rockwell than The Truman Show and Rushkoff reveals why: soporific Birkdale Village is actually a shopping mall. The people living there are renters, in condos set above national chain tenants such as Talbots, Sunglass Hut and the Gap.

“What by day appeared to be rows of separate little buildings are really separate little storefronts along the faces of just a few really big buildings. These structures are bounded on two sides by parking lots so immense that they prompted an Urban Land Institute report on the potential environmental damage to surrounding area by their water runoff. Almost everyone – more than 99 percent – inhabiting Birkdale by day has driven there from somewhere else. They aren’t Birkdale Villagers at all, but shoppers, diners and moviegoers,” Rushkoff writes.

Birkdale Village has 52 stores and 14 restaurants. There are 320 apartments above the stores. It’s like The Sims come to life, but the simulation is of community rather than commerce. Ironically, Rushkoff notes, North Carolina’s premier mall town draws from the “New Urbanism” championed by Canadian social theorist Jane Jacobs, who believed businesses should share space with local residences in communities. (If she knew her ideas were being invoked to support retail Potemkins, Toronto’s smartest urbanist would surely be spinning in her grave like a wind-powered turbine.)

Rushkoff tells how the residents staged a protest after North Carolina state agencies ordered Birkdale to shut its fountain off during a drought affecting the entire southeast. The developer explained to Rushkoff that the protestors didn’t just say, “Turn on the fountain;” they said, “turn on OUR fountain.” This, he said, proves the residents have a real community because they took ownership of the public space. Yet Birkdale Village is no such thing, Rushkoff observes. It’s a private space and the residents are only there at the discretion of the parent company.

While the author can’t begrudge anyone their ersatz community, when that’s the best thing on the shelf, he recognizes this as a Pyrrhic victory for the citizen-consumer. “…these master-planned faux villages would stand no chance at all of endearing themselves to people who weren’t already, and by design, disconnected and alienated from the place where they live. By installing national chains and superstores as their foundational institutions, mall towns redirect our dormant instinct for civic and social connect on to the brand sponsoring all this supposed renewal.”

Even though shopping malls are no longer quite the commercial force they were in the past, the mallification of life continues. Like a virus, the mall template has begun to invade cultural forms you’d never think could play host: airports, train stations, museums, military bases, casinos, theme parks, libraries, schools, universities and hospitals. Even churches.

Airports and malls are looking increasingly indistinguishable. (Been to Vancouver International Airport lately?) BAA, the British Airports Authority, operates seven British airports and four American airports. “It now generates 60 percent of its income from retail activities, and because of this the company is classified as a retail stock, rather than as a transportation stock,” according to the authors of Mutations. Museums and hospitals aren’t exempt from becoming “consumer aggregators:” between 1992 and 2000, gallery space in the US increased by three percent, while museum store space increased 29 percent. Fifty-nine of 200 US hospitals with pediatric residencies have fast food restaurants, according to a 2006 issue of the medical journal Pediatrics.

Most noteworthy are the megachurches that have erupted like mushrooms across the US, offering boutique shopping and food courts for highway-driving worshippers. Some of these theocratic Wal-Marts even offer daycare. According to the Wharton School of Business, in 2006, church pastors “had a chance to win a free trip to London and $1,000 cash – if they mentioned Disney’s film The Chronicles of Narnia in their sermons.”

Given present trends, it seems we’re fast approaching a world where law enforcement merges with data-mining, wireless surveillance, social networking… and shopping. This is the nexus where social control and consumerism meet and morph into newer and subtler forms of coercion. But will there still be significant numbers of middle class customers left to cruise the aisles – real or virtual – after the Borg-like absorption of public spaces by private interests?

Now that I’ve reached the mid-point in my life, I think back to those shopping trips with my mother and sisters and recall how much leisure time my family had. Although we were poor by Statistics Canada standards, we never wanted for anything. Four decades later, credit thoroughly dominates the lives of a new generation, making them run faster and faster just to stand still, with fewer moments for soulful reconnection with friends, family and their own selves.

And while one can’t seriously object to people in the developing world having opportunities long denied them, what’s objectionable is the template they’ve been given: the same credit-driven consumerism that has helped undercut community and connection across North America.

I suppose this is all part of the “world is flat” globalism espoused by author Thomas Freidman, but I’m more with singer Ian Hunter on this one, in his lament to a vanished past, When the World Was Round. That being said, it hasn’t all been a catalogue of losses. Ideas that were on the margins back in the early sixties – sustainability, civil rights and women’s rights – are now part of the mainstream. Communities across Canada and the US continue to resist the introduction of neighbourhood-nuking, big box stores. The bumper-sticker maxim, “Think Global and Act Local” has become embodied with community-supported agriculture. And media is no longer dominated by a few channels of network television.

People are waking up. The mall may be struggling for life in North America and assuming new forms, but the top-down model for consumerism may be up against something that’s truly difficult to game or co-opt: expanded consciousness.

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