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The mall is a ubiquitous part of the modern landscape. Acting as the modern town center, the mall provides space for shopping and commerce, as well as social interaction and cultural events. But the careful design of the mall articulates a vision of society that goes beyond the mall's function as a shopping location. As social commentator Molly Ivans proclaimed upon her first visit to the Mall of America, "Great Caesar's armpit! Sweet suffering catfish! Holy Gamoly! I have been to the pyramids of America. I have seen the cathedral of commerce. Our Parthenon, our Coliseum, our Chartres." Malls have been conferred with a kind of religiosity because of the abundance and frequency of shoppers seeking their treasures. The influence of the mall is evidenced by its placement on Consumer Reports ' list of the top 50 wonders in the past 50 years that have revolutionized the lives of consumers; other notable innovations include birth control pills, antibiotics, smoke detectors, air-conditioners, gas mowers, the computer, and the transistor.

Though malls have become one of the most recognizable features of America towns, the mall is not an American invention. The mall dates back to The Kapali Carsi, or Covered Bazaar, in Istanbul, Turkey, in the 8th century. Encompassing 65 streets and passages with more than 4,000 shops and cafes, it is reputed to have the largest number of shops under one roof anywhere in the world. Throughout the years, commerce has frequently developed in centralized locations. In the 1700s public plazas in Venice, Italy, featured shops and restaurants ringed around a central square. Built around a courtyard, the Palais Royale in Paris, France, was a five-story building filled with shops in 1784. Baltimore, Maryland, had Roland Park in 1900, which consisted of six stores and a parking area for horses and carriages. The National Register of Historic Places lists Market Square in Lake Forest, Illinois, built in 1916, as the first suburban shopping center.

But, according to various histories, the predecessor of the modern shopping center came in 1922 with the Country Club Plaza of Kansas City, Missouri. There a planned group of stores was built which were accessible only by car. The idea soon became popular. Grandview Plaza Shopping Center in Columbus, Ohio, included 30 stores and parking for 400 cars in 1928. The next step toward the modern shopping center came when the first enclosed mall was constructed in 1956. Built in a suburb of Minneapolis, the Southdale Mall had a clear objective: to keep the Minnesota weather out. Shoppers could shop in climate-controlled comfort year-round, but the Southdale Mall was spartan in comparison to newer malls. It had no food vendors, no skylights, no life-like statues, no fountains, and no neon signs.

The growth and economic, social, political, and psychological significance of the mall can only be understood in the context of a confluence of forces that followed World War II. Before 1950 people lived in urban areas where people's needs were supported within the borders of the city and were usually neighborhood based. Fueled by government guarantees for veterans and the vision of men like William Levitt, ownership of single family housing grew more after World War II than it had in the previous 150 years. The construction of homes occurred just outside city limits and a massive movement of people left the cities for these developing suburbs. By 1980 the population shift was completed: almost 50 percent of the population lived in suburban and rural areas.

The suburbs permanently altered the consumer landscape. A general dispersal of commercial, cultural, manufacturing, employment, service, financial, and entertainment and recreational activities accompanied the development of Levittown-type suburban communities across the United States. Without the structure of city neighborhood retail space, new retail sources were created. Malls were visionaries' answer to central business districts left in the cities.

Malls and shopping centers come in many shapes, sizes, and varieties. At one end of the scale are community convenience centers, retail spaces of 30,000 to 100,000 square feet housing small businesses like dry cleaners, pizza places, and frame shops. These neighborhood convenience centers survive without large tenants, called anchors, to draw from larger areas. At the end of the twentieth century, neighborhood shopping centers accounted for 63 percent of all shopping centers, 25 percent of all selling space, and 29 percent of shopping center sales.

At the next level are community centers of 100,000 to 400,000 square feet of retail space. A large grocery store, drug store, discount store, or department store typically acts as the anchor for these community centers. These community centers made up 32 percent of all shopping centers, 46 percent of all selling space, and 41 percent of shopping center sales.

Large regional shopping centers, behemoths with typically more than 400,000 square feet of retail space, have multiple anchors and attract consumers from multi-county areas. Regional shopping centers account for five percent of all shopping centers, 29 percent of selling space, and 30 percent of shopping center sales. At the far end of the scale, there are "megamalls." Megamalls have four-to five-million square feet of retail space and draw consumers worldwide. Two examples of megamalls include West Edmonton Mall in Canada (5.2 million sq. ft.) and The Mall of America (4.2 million sq. ft.) in Minnesota. West Edmonton has 825 specialty stores, 11 department stores, two auto dealerships, 132 restaurants, 32 movie screens, a five-acre water park with 22 slides, the world's largest indoor amusement park (with roller coaster), an 18-hole miniature golf course modeled after Pebble Beach, an ice skating rink, a lake, a bingo parlor, a medieval torture chamber, a hotel with 1,220 rooms, a chapel, an 80-foot replica of the Santa Maria, a miniature Bourbon Street, four submarines, 16 doctors, sharks, dolphins, flamingos, jaguars, alligators, availability of golf cart and rickshaw transportation, and plenty of parking. The Mall of America has 500 specialty stores, 49 restaurants, eight night clubs, 14 movie screens, a seven-acre amusement park with 28 rides, 100,000 guests each day, a 1.2 million gallon aquarium, and 14,000 parking spaces. Built in 1992, it attracted 190 million visitors from 1993 to 1998, generated 24,450 tons of waste in its first three years, and is five times larger than Red Square.

The proliferation of shopping malls over the past 30 years has had an indelible impact on the structure of retailing. In 1950 there were no retail sales in self-contained malls. In 1960 there were 4,500 malls, which accounted for 14 percent of retail sales. By 1975 16,400 malls accounted for 33 percent of retail sales. In 1987, there were 30,000 malls in the United States. In 1998 there were more than 42,000 malls with 5.1 billion square feet of retail space accounting for 933 billion retail dollars, about 40 percent of all retail sales, eight percent of the labor force, and 13 percent of the GNP. Between 1995 and 1998 an average of 900 new malls were built each year. At the end of the century, there was approximately 20 square feet of mall space for each American.

As the new town centers of the suburbs, malls have centralized commerce more than old town centers by providing all sorts of goods under one roof. At their best, malls represent a vision of utopia, promising to free Americans from crime, dirt, heat and cold, and uncertainty. The controlled environment of the mall is carefully designed. The barren exteriors of malls are designed so that people are encouraged to be inside and not outside the walled city. The enclosed mall is a stage upon which a fantasized and created world is played out. Retailers and mall marketers create the lighting, props, staging, and train actors (mall employees) to ensure customers will return. Retailers and common areas of the mall are designed to appeal to all five senses of consumers because the décor, noise, lighting, intensity, layout, and presence of others all may affect consumer behavior. Despite the newness of many aspects of the mall, the large center area, with seating and entertainment, recaptures the town square environment that was lost as people moved from urban centers, and the food courts resemble the old Italian Squares where people came to shop but stayed for food.

Conceptually, Disneyland is the prototype in principle, philosophy, and operation of the modern mall. Opened one year before the Southdale Mall, Disneyland offered Mainstreet, USA, where shops lined the street. Once inside, a visitor could walk inside through the entire Main Street, making Main Street Disneyland perhaps the real first enclosed shopping mall. And like Disneyland, some malls—including The Mall of America in Minnesota, Tyson's Corner in Virginia, and Woodfield Mall in Illinois—are the biggest tourist attractions in their states. The Mall of America is one of the top three attractions in the entire United States. The mall's 40 million customers in 1998 totalled more visitors than the Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon, and The Washington Monument combined.

The geography of the mall, like the geography of Disneyland, is a pretty fair representation of the American consumer consciousness. Both are areas designed to evoke happiness and a friendly, familiar environment. The point of Main Street Disneyland was to allow a long view of utopia ending at the Castle. The long view at the mall ends at its own utopia: an anchor department store. In Disneyland the end of Main Street radiates into the various lands of opportunity. So too does the mall, which spokes off into the other anchor and specialty areas. Like Disneyland, malls represent ideal environments where nothing bad ever happens, where everything is new and shiny, where everyone is happily consuming.

The abundance of mall offerings is mesmerizing. Malls offer child care, doctor and dental services, professional services, fine dining, entertainment, and education (one mall recently started an MBA program) and of course the "stuff" that makes us look better, feel better, live better, that makes life fun, interesting, easier, rewarding, and more satisfying. The mall offers the American dream under one roof. The walls of the mall, like the walls of a castle, preserve a way of life that is not only desired by all Americans but is the envy of the world. The mall is a version of an imperial city where anyone is admitted. The mall makes everything in society available to everyone.

But to the extent that consumers suffer from envy, jealousy, anxiety, and insecurity based on what they see in the mall and cannot have, their insecurity is reinforced. Malls are the manifestation, and maybe the continued cause, of a world that is defined by commercialization, as seen in schools, art museums, and not-for-profit institutions. William Kowinski posited in his book, The Malling of America: An Inside Look at the Great Consumer Paradise, that malls may be the important economic, cultural, social, and psychological identifier of our time:

Someday it may be possible—if it isn't already—to be born, go from preschool through college, get a job, date, marry, have children, fool around, get a divorce, advance through a career or two, receive your medical care, even get arrested, tried, and jailed; live a relatively full life of culture and entertainment and eventually die and be given funeral rites without ever leaving a particular mall complex—because every one of these possibilities exists now in some shopping center somewhere.

The mall is open to anyone, but a 1998 study indicated that the average mall shopper was a 36-year-old female with about $40,000 annual family income. This average shopper visited malls 9.9 times in a 30-day period and spent $75 per visit. The study went on to report that 75 percent of Americans shop at a mall at least once a month and listed the mall as the third most frequent destination after home and work. A mere 16 percent of Americans do not shop in a mall.

Malls have fit well into many changes in America. In a time of dual income families and single parent households, time-impoverished consumers can save time and effort by going to the mall. But those with extra time can enjoy the social atmosphere of the mall. Malls provide a social hall for senior citizens, a teenage hangout, and an exercise venue for walkers.

Despite the public embrace of malls, some signs of consumer disillusionment appeared at the end of the twentieth century. Changes in consumer behavior indicate that consumers are becoming disen-chanted with the mall experience. Mall visits per month have decreased one third over a ten-year period. And as consumers are visiting the mall less they are also spending one third less time per visit in the mall. In a 1996 national survey of mall consumers, the Purdue University Retail Institute found that consumers could easily identify their dissatisfaction with their mall experiences. The following is a list of the five most frequently mentioned negative impressions of malls:

  1. Malls were crowded. Ironically, efforts to increase traffic with special events may actually reinforce the notion of malls as crowded places.
  2. Mall parking had poor lighting, required a lengthy walk, and/or required payment.
  3. Loitering teenagers irritated the consumer.
  4. Poor interior layout and climate lead to a negative shopping experience. Some malls were reportedly confusing, unkempt, and poorly lit; others played loud music and had "bad" smells.
  5. Poor treatment in stores.

Other negative aspects of shopping at malls included: a lack of visible security, an inability to find help in the store, little selection/variety (store and merchandise sameness), paying more than expected, and an inability to find desired merchandise.

Mall managers and developers must pay attention to the nature of the retail experience in the mall, in the stores, and even in the parking lot. The customer satisfaction with the entire mall experience is related to purchase intent, loyalty, amount of purchase, and positive word of mouth. If customer satisfaction is ignored malls will face significant decline as other competitive venues—such as home shopping, Internet, catalog, and freestanding stores—serve customers better.

At their best, malls are simply the partnership of commercialism and community in harmony. The dedication plaque to Disneyland presented on July 17, 1955 is as much a call to the mall as it is to Disneyland: "To all who come to this happy place: Welcome. Disneyland ("The Mall") is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past … and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future." And like the 15 million people who visited Disneyland, the 14 million who visited the Magic Kingdom, and the 12 million people who visited Epcot Center in 1998, the 40 million people who visited the Mall of America did so because they found it pleasurable.

—Richard Feinberg

—Cindy Evans

Further Reading:

Bookstore and Publication Lists for the International Council of Shopping June 1999.

Feinberg, Samuel. What Makes Shopping Centers Tick. New York, Fairchild Publications, 1960.

Jacobs, Jerry. The Mall. Prospect Heights, Illinois, Waveland Press, 1984.

Kowinski, William. The Malling of America: An Inside Look at the Great Consumer Paradise. New York, W. Morrow, 1985.

Nelson, Eric. Mall of America: Reflections of a Virtual Community. Lakeville, Minnesota, Galde Press, 1998.

Zepp, Ira. The New Religious Image of Urban America: The Shopping Mall as Ceremonial Center. Niwot, Colorado, University of Colorado Press, 1997.