Call of the mall

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Call of the mall

by PacoUnderhill

Simon & Schuster ©2004, 227 pages, $24.95 (ISBN # 0-7432-3591-6).

Why We Shop Until We Drop — All in One Spot

Retail anthropologist and consumer behavior specialist PacoUnderhill has spent much time in the malls of America, Asia and Europe. He has returned from the enclosed shopping environments of the world with many discoveries about the ways consumers spend their money in these retail behemoths. As someone who studies the details of retailing, Underhill wrote Call of the Mall to shed new light on how malls, stores and parking lots are experienced by consumers.

Underhill writes that, at last count, there are 1,175 malls in the United States. A typical mall covers about 46 acres, including its parking lots. According to a poll from the 1970s in U.S. News and World Report, adult Americans spend more time at malls than anywhere except for home and work. Today, malls account for nearly 14 percent of all U.S. retailing (not counting cars or gasoline), and about $308 billion in annual sales.

‘Big Wall With a Little Mouse Hole’

Recounting the history of retail architecture, Underhill bemoans the boxy look of most malls, and reminisces about a time when department stores bore impressive edifices. Now, he writes, most malls that look like a “big wall with a little mouse hole” do a dismal job of signaling us as to what goes on inside. Although Faneuil Hall in Boston and other urban malls can become beautiful landmarks, he explains, most are huge and unsightly.

Underhill also spends a chapter of Call of the Mall on the lowly mall parking lot, and while describing the difficulties he has had finding his car in them when they are crowded, he imparts many suggestions about better ways retailers and marketers can use a mall’s parking lot to make more money. One tip: Have staffers park in front of the mall as a signal to morning shoppers that the mall is open, rather than park around back, leaving the lot vacant.

Today’s malls, Underhill points out, have become suburban functional Main Streets, filled with the activities once consigned to small-town main streets, schoolhouses, community centers or village greens. Today, Boy Scouts, ballet schools, drama clubs, and roller hockey leagues are all using the space on the mall’s ground floor to perform their activities.

Underhill also addresses the question “Are malls racist?” After briefly discussing the legal issues involved in mall access, he writes that “it seems clear that malls hope by limiting public transportation they can control who may enter and who may not.” Underhill writes that “keeping the mall unattainable by public transportation goes a long way toward segregating it from anything even potentially scary.”

In malls, Underhill explains, there is no weather to worry about and the pace is slower, but there is also no tradition of talking to or even helping strangers in a mall. He points out that even the maps within malls are not much help to those who are trying to find a particular store. He suggests that department stores might benefit by placing maps instead of directories inside their doorways. He even describes what a good store map would look like.

The Decompression Zone

Another observationUnderhill makes about malls is that there is a decompression zone between the door of a mall and the mall’s high-profile retailers. He points out that the stores between the mall’s doors and the deeper interior of the mall are usually low-profile tenants, such as post offices, video game arcades, beauty parlors, and exercise equipment stores. He writes that this transition stage is one of the most critical things he and his researchers have learned about how shoppers move through retail environments. “Nothing too close to the door really registers,” he writes. So, because of this transition zone, the best stores in the mall are never near the entrance.

Throughout Call of the Mall, Underhill recaps dialogue between himself and several other mall experts, including an executive with a major corporation that specializes in selling things to women shoppers, a 20-year-old shopper who walks Underhill through the process of buying jeans, and two adolescent girls who provide him with details of their mall shopping habits. While recounting their insights, contemplating their ideas, and tossing out a few researched statistics, Underhill presents numerous bits of advice for retailers and marketers that can put them more deeply in touch with the vast world of the mall. ~

Why We Like ThIs Book

Although Call of the Mall reveals more anecdotal and personal insight than empirical data and statistical evidence, the ideas it covers add many new dimensions to familiar terrain. Underhill’s conversational tone, clever wit and extensive experience make the knowledge of malls he imparts as informative as it is fun to read.~

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