A couple of years ago, as I wandered through the bowels of the Christmas season, it occurred to me to wonder why American shopping malls look the way they do.
I’m not talking about strip malls, or those fancy outdoor malls, but the good old “standard” (to my mind) mall, the playground of the typical 80s childhood.
The Mall of America. Every Westfield mall ever. Call them what you want, but these indoor malls are more than just markets. With their catwalks lined with stores, they’re shopping districts, meeting places, controlled environments, and icons of our cultural identity.
To understand why these malls are designed to look the way they do, we need to look into the past to see what shopping was like in the pre-mall era. If we go back just a hundred years, we see cities with shopping districts. Small shops lined the streets, and people could easily walk from one store to the next. The roads of course, were available for horses, and eventually cars as well.
The modern mall grows out of exactly this experience, but provides a controlled environment. The open streets are replaced with a covered area, and cars are kept out, allowing for more foot traffic.
Catwalks and levels corral shoppers and direct them this way and that. The upper levels take advantage of the enclosed space to create a three-dimensional assault on our senses.
But if you walk through these malls with a little imagination, you can still see traces of their earlier history. You’l walk down faux roads, looking in shop windows as each store tries to entice you inside with colorful displays. Although the walking areas are empty of cars, they are still as wide as roads, giving a sense of openness while still keeping us safe and enclosed.
A key difference between these malls and traditional urban shopping districts can be found in the level of planning that goes into them. The malls, as businesses themselves, are carefully managed.
As we walk through a mall and look at the variety of colors and shapes, advertisements and messages, there is a certain sameness to them. Like the suburbs they serve, they do what they can to keep out undesirables, promote a certain uniformity, and support a Western-influenced middle-class lifestyle. Perhaps more than almost anywhere except television, they promote visions of “self” and “other” that are nearly wholly mercantile and commodified.
I haven’t been a fan of shopping malls since I was young and they were places of excitement (and video arcades). But then again, I doubt that I’ve ever done too well as a “target market.”
There was always something that seemed artificial about the malls. They were too controlled an environment. With their own security, and a level of organization that made urban planning look downright chaotic, they lacked that sense of organic growth of more open shopping districts.
Today, as I walk through these malls, these mock-shopping districts, I sometimes imagine that it is an earlier time. Like “proper” women of sixty years ago wearing gloves in public, everyone wants to look dressed up — though it may not be a formal middle-class look.
Nonetheless, in a mall, all the primate games of competition for wealth and status are on display. It can be seen in everything from fancy jewelry and revealing clothes to the latest fashions and t-shirts that proclaim “I’m with stupid.” (Maybe they don’t know the old saying that “you can judge a person by the company he keeps…”)
And through it all, kids move in packs through these malls like street urchins once did. Maybe they’re not the desperate throwaway children they once would have been, but the mall becomes a playground run by merchants and marketers.
If the urban shopping district of yesteryear was like a black-and-white film, today’s are like the IMAX experience of shopping. Marketers, with every psychological gambit and every trick of the trade, vie for attention and create a sense of need.
During heavy shopping times, especially between Black Friday and Christmas, the place is awash with five senses’ worth of stimulation. The music is calculated, the stores have signature scents, and the images are designed to create a sense of need.
Of course, you’ve almost certainly experienced Christmas shopping as well — but like shooting rapids, you might not have taken the time to really look at the scenery. Beyond the five senses, there is a also a sense of urgency; It comes off the press of humanity, and goes beyond just scents, sights, and sounds.
To the primate within, if you can imagine it, mall shopping is like being one of a panicked herd of buffalo in a corral. There is a sense of purpose, but the purpose is barely understood. Except in the American mall, it’s many groups swirled together, and all the hunters want is attention…and the sale.