Books: How those monster retail arcades took over our lives

There's a lot to learn from Paco Underhill's latest exhaustive (and exhausting) study of the psychology of shopping, reports Stuart Rose - and even good news

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The Call of the Mall; By Paco Underhill; Profile £15; MT price £13 (see panel, p36)

Paco Underhill is a retail anthropologist whose first book Why We Shop - The science of shopping sold an extraordinary 750,000 copies. The publicity blurb for this book claims that it will explain our extraordinary love affair with the shopping mall and the cut-throat world of competition, planning and big money that makes these arcades what they are. It left me with more questions than answers and the view that this book will appeal more to the sociology student than the professional retailer.

The book is an exhaustive and exhausting tour of an imaginary shopping centre from car park (one chapter alone) to catering via merchandise, merchandising, customer design, display - right through to plumbing.

What we get is very little about the key business drivers, levers and buttons, and a great deal of retail facts. As a basic retail primer it might do the trick; as a serious study of one of the key developments in retail in the 20th century, it is lacking.

A selection of mall facts include the information that more women go to malls than men; men walk more slowly than women in malls - but faster on the street; people despise malls but go nevertheless; customers like to park as close to the mall as possible; the main entrance is often not the busiest; women's clothing is the mainstay of most malls, and cosmetics sell best when sited next to footwear; mall signage is poor and mall lavatories must have been designed by men, because although twice as many women as men use them (and take longer), no-one has thought to make the ladies' lavatory bigger.

The mall was invented 70 years ago - in Medina, Minnesota - on the back of cheap land, cheap rents and soft planning laws. Basically, it was easier and cheaper to start from scratch outside the city or town rather than go to the expense of regeneration and renovation.

The big retail companies of the past were monuments to the great merchants who developed them - Macy, Gimbal, Neiman Marcus and Marshall Field. The buying experience began when you, the shopper, caught sight of the grand exterior. Greed and the car killed that and the mall has now expanded worldwide.

Much as many of us hate them, hardly anyone in the developed world can have avoided a trip to the mall at some time. There are 1,200 in the US alone and they have had a significant impact on the way we shop and live. Adult Americans spend more time in malls than anywhere else other than work or home. Sadly, they go there not only to shop but to eat, to meet and to be entertained.

There is nothing magical about malls - they are a convenience and a money-maker - mostly, I suspect, for the developer. In terms of design, development, building quality, management and maintenance, they are a bland, dumbed-down version of the high street and they are back to front - the shops face inwards - and most of them look like anonymous blockhouses surrounded by car parks, and they are approachable only by car.

Malls are vast - one million square foot plus, accommodating about 100 shops in various price brackets. The formula almost always includes a music shop, a toy shop, a video store, a hairdresser, food malls and sometimes a cinema.

But there is hardly ever a bookshop.

In the US, the mall has replaced many village squares or streets as the meeting place. Young kids hang out, browsing the shops or eating. People congregate in the food malls eating pizza, cookies, pretzels or ice cream.

An apple would be hard to find.

Doctors often send senior citizens to the mall to get exercise - tackling the obesity that the mall gave them - in a dry, bright, wind-free environment.

In many malls, often all that can be heard in the early morning is the squeak-squeak of trainers as the elderly circle the mall, spending little and taking up the best parking spaces - much to the irritation of mall managers.

Meanwhile, shopping streets in towns and cities are increasingly neglected and empty - a warning to us all.

Mercifully, the development of such monsters in the UK has been greatly restricted by a lack of space and tighter planning laws. This is a blessing in disguise, as local authorities have focused on regenerating towns and city centres, providing the transport infrastructure. Our children will have much to thank us for.

Paco Underhill is an acute observer and there is much to be learnt about the shoppers' psyche - pick out the gems and discard the unwanted.

However, if this book does nothing but inspire a new retail generation to learn from the mistakes of the past and improve the lot of the shopper, it will have succeeded.

I had to wait 201 pages for the good news. In the US, some shopping malls are being re-invented - minus enclosing roofs - as main street developments or neo-villages; 21st-century attempts to recreate guess what? - the traditional shopping street.

Stuart Rose has spent all his working life in retail. He started his career at Marks & Spencer and latterly was CEO of Arcadia Group.

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