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Best Business Books 2004: The New Consumer

The Fall of the Mall

The Shops at Columbus Circle, a much-anticipated urban mall, opened in New York City in June 2004 inside the new Time Warner Center. The reaction: a New York shrug. The reasons for this indifference tell us much about the mind-set of the typical American consumer. The four floors of the mall proper are imposing -- vaulted marble, miles of gleaming glass providing a view of Central Park -- yet the stores are all rented to familiar, solid middle-rung retailers: J. Crew, Eileen Fisher, Benetton, Coach, Crabtree & Evelyn. These purveyors of straightforward, practical clothing and accessories are overwhelmed by their grand surroundings. Worse, in many of the center's stores, the clothes, shoes, and handbags are laid out sparingly, as if they were special or luxury items. Most of all, shoppers never have the feeling of adventure and discovery that accompanies much shopping in New York, where a rich variety of products is part (and parcel) of daily life.

Downstairs in the basement, though, the Shops at Columbus Circle get it right. There, one can find the second Whole Foods Market to open in Manhattan. (If the shopper can find it. Unbelievably, signage indicating the market's whereabouts is nonexistent.) Like all markets and bazaars through the ages, Whole Foods is an enticing hive of activity and mounds of goods. Even its hefty prices and laugh-provoking pretensions -- a sign at the bakery counter advising, "If you are concerned about the organic integrity of the bread, slice it at home" -- are forgiven because of the vitality of the overall surroundings. Seeing this, it becomes apparent why the Whole Foods Market chain has gone from being a hangout for crunchy types to being a contender for the Fortune 500 list of largest businesses in the United States. In an interview in The New York Times Magazine, John Mackey, the chain's founder, explained why he took up the challenge of stimulating his customers: "We love to shop. And Americans love to eat. But paradoxically we don't love to shop for food. Grocery shopping in America is for the most part a chore."

Chiefly, John Mackey predicted that consumers would pay a premium for organic foods, something that even 10 years ago no one would have imagined. With his finger to the wind of change, he understood that the average American consumer was evolving from a herd animal into a sophisticated, knowledgeable, and assertive creature.

Paco Underhill, author of Call of the Mall: The Geography of Shopping (Simon & Schuster, 2004), is another person who has long known that bland, emotionless, one-size-fits-all approaches to retailing no longer cut it with consumers. As founder and managing director of Envirosell, a firm that advises merchants around the world on customer behavior, Underhill would have a field day dissecting the reasons the Time Warner Center's mall stumbles upstairs but succeeds in the basement.

Two other books of note published this year illuminate the changing character of the American consumer. Just as 10 years ago we could not have imagined customers paying a premium for organic foods, we could not have foreseen the role that design would play in giving products a competitive edge, a trend that Virginia Postrel examines in her dynamic book, The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness (HarperCollins, 2003).

While we are on trends affecting consumer behavior, it's also worth looking at a nation-changing one that has been building for years in the United States: the population shift from the cities to the suburbs. Conservative commentator David Brooks calls the phenomenon "the suburban supernova" in his entertaining book On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense (Simon & Schuster, 2004).

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