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Shopping Malls Transform 'The Geography of Shopping'


In barely 50 years, the mall has become the centerpiece of American towns, where people come to shop, dine, see a movie, people-watch or simply pass the time. The American innovation has also gone global - with shopping malls from Kuala Lumpur to Dubai, and from Tokyo to Sao Paolo.

"They are places where the middle class is comfortable and feels secure," says Paco Underhill, author of the new book, Call of the Mall: The Geography of Shopping. "Malls often have their own police or security forces. They are a safe zone for people to rendezvous."

Over the past two decades, Mr. Underhill's research and consulting firm has observed hundreds of mall stores in 30 countries around the world. The work, he says, involves "looking at the interaction between people and commercial spaces and people and products in those spaces."

He believes we are attracted to the mall by the chance to look at other people. "Looking at people's faces is one of the human needs that brought us to the marketplace since we were hunters and gatherers," says Mr. Underhill. "Also, for many categories of merchandise, we need to touch and feel things, [and] to smell them."

The American shopping mall was spawned by suburban development, a reliance on automobiles and the availability of open land. In Call of the Mall, Mr. Underhill says the first centers were designed to be convenient, not necessarily attractive. "Certainly, in North America, most of our shopping malls are more than 20 years old," he says. "Most of them are in suburban locations. We think of them as being boxes with mouse holes in them."

He calls the experience of being a consumer at the mall "challenging" -- citing problems such as finding a parking space…getting to where you want to be, especially if you're new to the mall…and dealing with rest rooms.

Mr. Underhill says urban malls tend to be better designed because city governments usually require developers to make malls fit harmoniously with their surroundings. In urban centers, competition gives mall shoppers plenty of choices. "In New York, I have more than 20 malls within a 25 minute drive of my home," he notes. "Which one am I going to go to?" The answer, he says, may depend on a variety of factors - from the mix of stores to the parking situation to the quality of the mall's movie theater.

Howard Hyden, president of the Center for Customer Focus, says some malls are more popular than others because of the Food Court, with its many fast food choices. He also cites customer surveys showing that the most successful mall is the one that is clean, well maintained and well lit…and where shopping is fun and stress-free.

Some malls are large enough that their very size induces stress. "I remember going to the mega mall in Minnesota, the Mall of America," Mr. Hyden says. "One entrepreneur there noticed that it's so huge that one of your concerns is how to find whoever you went with. So this entrepreneur is renting two-way radios for the afternoon. You show up and you can rent this radio. Then you're in touch with your kids or spouse. It makes it more convenient."

The mega-mall has become such a spectacle that shoppers visit the Mall of America from around the world. "Northwest Airlines partnered with a couple of companies in Minnesota," Mr. Hyden notes. "They would bring this huge jet full of people from Japan that are actually flying to the United States [just to go] to the Mall of America. It's all packaged together. It's almost a group activity. The group will come, go on the buses, come together, go shopping, spend the money, get on the buses and go home."

Call of the Mall author Paco Underhill says the first enclosed shopping mall began as a practical way for Americans to keep shopping - even if it was too cold, hot or humid outside. He says the idea has morphed around the world, where malls are designed to take into account the local culture, customs and needs.

"Many developers from across the world have come to the U.S., looked, and gone back to their own countries and really done a magnificent job of reinventing the mall," says Mr. Underhill. "Whether it's malls in the Middle East…whether it's the new Diagonal Mar in Barcelona, Spain, where there is an electronic system to guide you to the nearest open parking place…or a mall in Brazil, where there is a place for you to drop your laundry as you walk in the mall, and have it washed, dried and ironed while you shop."

People everywhere enjoy browsing, exploring and window-shopping - activities that are easy to do in an enclosed mall. Mr. Underhill says that is one of the reasons these centers have remained popular. Although malls will evolve, he predicts they will continue to have a place in people's social life. Despite the increasing popularity of on-line shopping, going to the mall, he says, will always bring an emotional content to the shopping experience.

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