Mall shopping

Not Pall Mall, of course.  We’re talking indoor shopping centres here, as distinct from the High Street and out-of-town retail parks (aka “Power Centers“).  The Mall is predominantly an American phenomenon but now truly global in scope and ever increasing in dimensions and with origins going back many centuries.

The concept is simple enough: choose a location with good logistics from all directions and plenty of cheap land; gather together a mix of shops, restaurants and entertainments under one roof; provide sufficient parking for everyone who wants to shop; choose a catchy name and make sure it’s heard everywhere; add security, welcome shoppers and charge sky-high rents.  Get the punters in and anything is possible – they get what they came for, then stay many more hours and make dozens of unplanned purchases.  Bingo!  Everyone goes home happy.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?  Apparently not.  In the USA, many malls are now virtually out of business, allegedly due to online shopping.  Shops are not paying the rents, so retail space goes begging, and nothing puts consumers off faster than empty shop fronts – which of course is what retail parks and shopping centres did to the town centre (though Leeds may have found one way to combine the two.)

The British equivalents seem to be flourishing though.  Speaking from personal experience, I’ve been to Lakeside, Bluewater, Westfield Stratford, the Trafford Centre, the Arndale Manchester (unusually bang in the heart of the city), and Meadowhall in recent months, all of which have been humming with activity and barely an empty shop to be spied.  Much the same experience seems to be felt everywhere, since new malls are appearing with frightening regularity – and they are becoming bigger by the year.  Whether their clients are finding life so easy is less clear, but the malls are making hay while this marriage of convenience between purchasers and retailers continues to flourish.

I mention all this as background, since the purpose of this blog is to describe the shopping experience at these places, which despite what they would have you believe is not all sweetness and light.

Let us begin with locations: I have at least five of these beasts within moderately easy reach, though none is exactly on my doorstep.  Several are about an hour’s drive, others further, and one is a train ride into East London. Would I choose to travel a not inconsiderable distance to these locations, were it not for some special purpose?  Probably not.  In fact, I’d avoid travelling any further than I actually have to, and for my purposes I can generally get what I need in Chelmsford, Colchester or Freeport, or more especially the small shops tucked away in local villages (hold that thought), so it would have to be very special for me to venture out to Westfield or Lakeside at not inconsiderable cost in train fare or diesel, respectively.

Now, how about the environment?  Having covered malls may protect you from the elements but these enclosed spaces have a tendency to be warm, airless and to leave you needing a good deal more than coffee to recover your sanity.  Strange then that a search for “air conditioning” on the Intu Lakeside website yields no results, though you would truly hope finding ways to keep the air cool and fresh was high on the agenda for mall owners!

Which reminds me.  How about a moment to look at the logistics of these monuments to retail capitalism.  Most are huge, I mean vast.  Lakeside is actually one of the smaller estates, but a great many seem to go on for ever.  They are typically designed with one primary shape (in the case of Bluewater that shape is triangular, though many are slightly curved rectangles) with various avenues and pathways leading off to further grottoes and squares.  Lakeside has two floors plus a third for the food court, though a good many start at the basement and have numerous floors upwards. I remember Lindsey wanting to explore the Hollister shop at Westfield San Francisco, only to find that it went 7 floors up.  We eventually tracked it down on about the 4th or 5th, at which point she was off.

Be sure to remember where you parked, because it may not be easy to find your way back, but one thing is for certain – after a few hours tramping the walkways and perusing the maps in search of the shop you need, your feet will be murdering you.  This is OK, since the providers will want you to stop and partake at the cafes, fast food outlets and coffee shops along the way, but from my perspective the bottom line is that mall shopping is utterly exhausting.  Is this really the most effective way of shopping?

Also, have you ever noticed these places seem to stint on seating?  Yes, there will be some seating down the centre aisle of the boulevards of shopping heaven, but so often not enough when the places are packed to the rafters.  Drag your weary feet still further – and remember they want you to sit at the coffee shops.

The layout of these places is very strategic.  The big department stores and suchlike are kept as far from one another as humanly possible, deliberately to protect each from its closest competitors but at a cost in shoe leather to the customer.  In order to compare the price for your preferred style of shoes in all three invariably means tramping to each of the extremes of the mall, and then to find the right department around the extensive square footage.  You could be lucky and find the right style at a decent price at a retailer en route between them, but for the most part you would surely soon tire of “shopping around” in this context and probably shop by Google next time?  Given the vast and ongoing footfall, apparently not.  Try Christmas shopping in your nearest mall and you’ll see what I mean.

Ah, but they would argue, there is more choice in these places, and choice is what the consumer wants.  Intu sells its Lakeside mall thus:

Intu Lakeside Shopping Centre in Essex has over 250 shops, cafes and restaurants as well as a Dove Spa and a 9 screen Vue Cinema. With top names such as House of Fraser, Debenhams, Primark and Marks & Spencer along with flag ship stores such as Topshop, Superdry and Forever 21, you’re sure to find what you’re looking for

If you’re only after one store, 250 may well put you off, but then in the eyes of the mall owners what they are selling is a leisure experience, something to be enjoyed over a whole day rather than rushing in one store and out again.  In my case, my last two trips to Lakeside have been directly attributable to the Apple Store there; true, I did also buy some smalls in Primark, but that was only added to the list by scratching my head and wondering what else I needed.  What proportion of shoppers really want to spend their whole day window shopping at dozens of stores anyway?  Evidently some, but let’s be clear about this – for most, shopping is not a pleasurable activity.

I do wonder who the intended audience for malls is supposed to be, though I guess the answer is they aim to have “something for everyone.”  In a sense, my ideal shopping is much more akin to the traditional high street, with a variety of very old fashioned shops.  Mall shopping is something else entirely, with an assortment of shops selling goods I would rather not buy.  For example, the restaurants tend to be chains and fast food outlets.  The clothes shops sell very particular clothes aimed loosely at what you would call “fashion” retail, the sort of shops selling the sort of goods that will pay high rents.

And so on – like multiplex cinemas, more outlets but strangely restricted in choice.  This is a glimpse of how the retail industry thinks we want to shop, but I doubt if anyone truly asked the consumer what makes life easier for them.  No, we have the annoying tendency to conform to what the planners and retailers want, or to their view of what they think we want.

So, small wonder if more people do more shopping online.  The more I experience of these Retail Cathedrals, the less inclined I am to make a return trip – and the more inclined to sound like a grumpy old man.  That said, they do have some uses.  Meeting friends is a good one, assuming you can find them!

PS. For the record, I did buy a laptop for my daughter at the Apple Store.

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