Throwback in Need of a Makeover

Why Americans Increasingly Ignore The Call of the Mall

The overwhelming majority of American shopping malls were built more than 25 years ago. They were put up fast, and any design equity in the project was focused inward. Whether or not the registers on the inside are ringing, from the outside the American Mall is butt ugly.

Through the 1980s, malls were constructed to serve new markets. Following the development of suburban housing, builders had the pleasure of interacting with unsophisticated local government officials who were happy, based on the promise of increasing tax revenue, to let developers design and build with little more than safety and fire code supervision.

While many A malls have been renovated over the past twenty years, there are B and C locations that are more than showing their age. Mall of America, for example, looms across the horizon like something from a Gothic video game. Leaking roofs and weedy parking lots with broken lighting are hardly welcoming. The surrounding apron makes it look more like a war zone than the dominant anchor of shopping between Chicago and San Francisco.

This American invention is stuck in a time warp. The tenant mixes are dominated by fashion and giftware. Only a handful of malls can bill themselves as the edge city centers their location might suggest. Books, sporting goods, and toys have left the mall. Grocery and drug have never been part of the mix. Legend has it that the early mall moguls had a horror of shopping carts and feared alienating the department store tenants they felt were necessary for their projects. The prevailing wisdom was that the department store anchor generated the traffic that the rest of the mall fed from.

In 2010, the idea that department stores drive mall traffic has been debunked. The more upscale the department store, the fewer customers it needs. I remember walking into a new Neiman Marcus in Plano, Texas that was completely empty on a Friday afternoon. I met the manager who had a big grin on his face. “Your store’s a ghost town bro, why are you smiling?” I asked.

“Mrs. Garcia is in the dressing room” was his response. I’m told that some Neiman’s stores stay open based on the shopping habits of 200 women. At Selfridge’s in London, Holt Renfrew in Toronto and Saks in Beverly Hills, those A-list customers tend to slip in a back door and be ushered directly into a dressing room, carefully stocked by a personal shopper familiar with their tastes. The floor of the store itself is just expensive window dressing for the real action that happens out of the public eye, in a back room.

The American Mall industry is struggling because since the late Eighties, they have been building malls not to serve new markets, but to steal market share from existing properties. Across the country are examples of properties that are forty percent vacant. In Texas, some of those troubled properties have been re-invented as “ethnic malls.” Le Grand Plaza in Fort Worth is one example; the mall has its own mariachi band.

As American developers are scrambling to reinvent themselves, Whole Foods and Target are much-courted tenants. Having a Saks at one end and Target at the other is no longer seen as inconsistent. Just as tony Madison Avenue merchants are not overwhelmed with gawking low-end lookie-loos, inappropriate shoppers tend to avoid the high-end districts in the mall.

Outside of North America, the shopping mall continues to evolve. For more than a decade, developers have been making the pilgrimage to Portugal to see the Vasco Da Gama Center on the outskirts of Lisbon. Sonae LLC’s signature project, named after the legendary navigator, is an abstraction of a glass ship. Across the street from the commuter railroad, tied to a trade show center and as the anchor for a surrounding housing complex, it is good example of the “All, rather than Mall,” movement. An All tends be a complicated partnership between public and private money. It involves an urban planning process in which housing, commercial office space, hospitality and shopping are integrated. One basic precept is that the outside of the mall has to have a relationship to the surrounding community. At Vasco Da Gama, the soaring glass spaces are balanced by a food court with a view. The stores themselves may not be extraordinary, but the total package is. One of the problems the center has is getting all the diners off the property after midnight.

Steen and Strøm, the Nordic real estate developer, has reopened Sollentuna Centrum, in a suburb of Stockholm. They have made an interesting effort to feminize the physical design. One of the corridors has a gauzy canopy on the ceiling that floats like chiffon. It’s matched with a brocade-patterned red carpet. The effect is quite pleasing to both customers and tenants. The mall is tied into public transportation, has a very modern Lutheran Church attached, and gives priority to bicycle parking.

Across South America mall culture has been driven by security issues. With unsafe streets pervading most urban and suburban areas, the shopping mall offers a secure and climate-controlled environment. The guards aren’t your fat rent-a-cop, but a well-dressed cadre that look like a cross between nightclub bouncers and the Secret Service. People dress up to go to the mall. The sound on the concourse isn’t the squeak squeak of sneakers, but the clatter of high heels. The people-watching opportunities at some Brazilian malls give Fashion Week in New York City a run for its money.

American shoppers deserve better than they are getting. The Grove in LA may be cool, and Country Club Plaza in Kansas City deserves landmark status, but the rest is in need of more than a facelift. The prime asset may be the asphalt pavement that cries for a jackhammer and re-development.

Paco Underhill is the CEO of Envirosell (www.envirosell.com), a behavioral research and consultancy firm focused on commercial environments. His first book, Why We Buy, was an internationally bestseller. Call of the Mall was released in 2004 is a humorous walking tour of an American shopping mall. His columns and editorials have appeared in The New York Times, Money Magazine, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, among others. Underhill is the only foreigner to hold a position on the Board of Advisors at Hakuhodo—Japan’s second largest advertising agency. His latest book published in July of 2010 is entitled What Women Want. It is not a sex manual.

Paco Underhill About Paco Underhill

Paco Underhill is the CEO and Founder of Envirosell, a behavioral research and consulting firm with 10 offices globally. Paco and Envirosell’s work has been featured in The New York Times, 20/20, National Public Radio, Smithsonian Magazine, Wall Street Journal, and other major news media. Paco is also the author of What Women Want, which was published in soft cover edition by Simon & Schuster in July 2011; Call of the Mall, a walking tour of the American shopping mall; and Why We Buy, the bestselling book about retail in history. In addition, Paco’s columns include regular features in major trade publication DDI Magazine, as well as Goldman Sachs’ in-house publication.