Master of the mall

Enter the brightly lit, magnificently mirrored corridors of any large shopping mall, and all of ones senses are immediately swamped by a kaleidoscope of architectural brilliance, sweet-scented aromas, pristinely tiled floors, gleaming surfaces of unfathomable lengths and sheer, unabashed decadence. These are the hallways of the retail harbinger, the corridors of credit, the purchaser’s playground. In the fifty-six years since the invention of the shopping mall by Austrian architect, Victor Gruen, the ubiquitous mall has been forced to reinvent itself in the face of the new ‘experience economy’. In its battle for survival and relevance, what was once a convenient and simplistic collection of shops has mutated into a complex assortment of lifestyle, amusement and experiential outlets. Gone is the badly-dressed Santa Claus and the locally run fashion show. The new shopping mall is an ingeniously designed stage for the ultimate in consumer experience.

Reeling from the ongoing effects of a recession and compounded by the resounding success of on-line retail, shopping mall owners have engaged with psychologists, scientists, behavioural therapists, retail experts and trend analysts to formulate a more effective recipe for enticing consumers to part with their hard-earned cash. Knowing that the longer a person stays in a store is directly proportionate to how much they spend means that mall owners have over time developed a quiver full of tricks aimed at making you linger longer. Food courts have proved a tried and tested tactic to get shoppers to stick around, with malls using larger areas to accommodate a broader range of local eateries and exclusive, high-end restaurants. Relying on research that customers who eat at a mall tend to spend 20% more, large retailers are now dedicating greater sections of floor space to their own brand of coffee shop, deli or restaurant.

Whereas mall owners previously looked for large retail anchors, the trend is now for malls to secure popular amusement or entertainment anchors too. Cinemas, play areas, ice-rinks and bowling alleys have been promoted to ‘mall must-haves’ as mall owners acknowledge that their role has changed from that of landlord to innovative ‘place maker’. They know enough to understand that the new consumer wants to experience the mall, and not just visit it.

There is deliberate intelligence behind every phase of the consumer experience, starting as early as the car park experience. Research shows that customers prefer entering a shopping mall from top to bottom, which is why many malls have their parking areas above the shops. Customers are then forced to take the escalator or lift down into the shopping mall, providing them with a subconscious sense of ease. Upon entering a shopping mall, it’s been discovered that it takes customers between 5 and 15 paces to adjust to the light and refocus on their new environment. Mall owners are therefore advised never to put anything of great importance in this entrance area (otherwise known as the ‘decompression zone’) because it will go largely unnoticed by the still-slightly disorientated consumer. Similarly, it’s now understood that customers tend to walk faster past banks because there’s nothing exciting to look at, and mall owners know never to put anything meaningful in close proximity to a boring bank.

The lighting, sound and scent in shopping malls are cleverly combined to create an aesthetically pleasing backdrop for the overall shopping experience. Mirrors and shiny surfaces are vital ingredients in the retail recipe. Trading on innate human vanity, mirrors cause people to slow down and be more perceptive. Of particular importance when it comes to lighting is to ensure that the customer doesn’t see natural daylight. Artificial lighting provides the customer with a false sense of endless daytime, whereas natural lighting (particularly at sunset) will remind the customer that it’s time to go home. The abundance of shiny surfaces in shopping malls is more than coincidental. Scientists have established that early humans had an eye for gleaming surfaces as it helped them to find clean, drinkable water in the wild. The artificial lights, mirrored walls, glossy floor tiles, bling accessories, chrome finishes, glass frontages and decorative metal signage are all deliberate and very intentional in the race to make you stay longer and spend more.

Mall décor is generally more feminine-inspired in support of what market-researchers irrefutably know – that women shop for longer than men because they have more patience. Men are more distractible and have a lower level of tolerance for confusion. Whereas as women migrate towards shops with high visual energy and excessive choice, mall landlords know that men are attracted by simpler designs, cleaner lines, masculine wood or metal, and less choice. For the first time in history, men have started choosing and purchasing their own underwear, forcing retailers to educate themselves on how to market underwear to the male market. Not by accident have fashion houses such as Gap and Hilton Weiner displayed their stock on large tables in the middle of their shops. Research shows that a communal table makes customers feel at home and sub-consciously ‘invites’ them to pick up the clothes.

If airports are the benchmark in safety and security, shopping malls could quite easily be considered their antithesis. Enter any shopping mall and any evidence of security is surprisingly negligible, not least because the presence of formal security makes customers feel watched and threatened. Up-down escalators are strategically positioned within mall centres, and it’s not a design fault that the entrance to the up escalator is on the opposite side to the down escalator. The distance between the two escalators forces consumers to walk past more shops and hopefully spend more money. As a subtle antidote for shoplifting, many department stores have introduced the concept of ‘greeters’ at the store entrance. Trading on the psychology that people generally won’t steal from nice people, it’s been proven that a friendly smile and warm greeting reduces the risk of theft within the shop.

The mutation of the mall is the result of a subtle-but-important shift in the balance of power between buyer and seller as retailers respond to the desires of shoppers in their demand for enhanced experiences. The new mall owner is under pressure to deliver a consumer experience that engages all five senses within the confines of its high-gloss finishes and lavishly bright lighting in an orchestrated performance of unfathomable proportions. No longer content with the mundane mayhem of the mass mall trawl, the demands of the new consumer have ousted the ‘laidback landlord’ and ushered in the ‘experience entrepreneur’ as retail ring-leader and master of the mall.

Clockwise from top left: Customers prefer entering a mall from top down; humans are attracted by bright lights and shiny surfaces; food courts increase the ‘staying power’ of customers; men prefer cleaner lines and less choice; customers feel comfortable lifting garments off a communal table.

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