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Published: November 30, 2004

 
 

Best Business Books 2004: The New Consumer

Retail Anthropology
Paco Underhill, a self-described retail anthropologist, first caught the business world's attention with his eye-opening bestseller, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping (Simon & Schuster, 1999). His new book, Call of the Mall, is equally revelatory. After reading it, no one can be involved in retailing without an Underhill-like commentary running through his or her head.

The call of the mall, he says, has always been with us. "The saga of humankind can be told at least in part through the story of shopping," he writes. "Even the simplest agrarian societies needed places to assemble to trade in goods, and from that basic impulse came everything else, marketplaces, villages, towns, cities. The mall is just another organizing principle." But it's an organizing principle that, Underhill persuasively argues in Call of the Mall, is past its prime.

To show why, he takes readers on a tour of an average American suburban mall. Nothing escapes Underhill, from the blasted heath of the parking lot and the unimaginative stores to the bilious food joints and the purely functional restrooms. With the exception of city shopping centers, where local government often demands community facilities and design equity in exchange for building rights, the American mall is mostly a utilitarian affair.

Essentially, malls evolved from a simple concept: Stores in strip malls were turned to face one another and a roof put over it all. After that, in the American way, the result was sanitized, homogenized, large-sized, and thoroughly air-conditioned. We learn from Underhill that U.S. malls are usually undistinguished because they are traditionally erected not by the merchant princes responsible for department stores but by developers whose mandate it is to turn suburban plots into gold mines at the lowest outlay. A mall can be thought of as "a store of stores," argues Underhill. But the malls' proprietors don't think of them as stores with something to sell, only as real estate. Thus, we get the typically ugly exteriors -- "A big wall with a mouse hole," in the words of one unashamed developer -- and the bland interiors with their dull, unhelpful signage.

The problem facing American mall developers is the radical change in customers' expectations. They've been exposed to and are excited by exotic foods, fashion labels capable of responding to weekly fluctuations in tastes, and even avant-garde architecture. Because alluring buildings such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, designed by American architect Frank Gehry, draw so many tourists, other cities are falling all over themselves to get their own signature piece of architecture. Consumers aren't content to read about aesthetic advancements; they want them to be a part of their world.

Retailers are responding to this, too. A designer's flagship retail store, such as the Rem Koolhaas-designed Prada emporium in New York City's Soho, is no longer just a fashion destination for the elite. The architecture has become a tourist attraction, even though the clothes are too expensive for middle-class consumers. At the store of couture designer Issey Miyake in New York's Tribeca, a proud sales assistant, pointing to the waves of tortured metal decorating the ceiling, declaimed, "Our aluminum is by Gehry."

Underhill also points out that in Europe, one can already find more attractive, pleasurable malls, such as the Vasco Da Gama and Colombo centers in Lisbon or Diagonal Mar in Barcelona. These consumer environments reflect what shopping can be when attention is paid to consumers' evolving needs and desires. Erected by visionaries with mercantile DNA, these European malls feature a broad variety of entertainment and distractions for those who want to socialize or idle away time; starred restaurants and high-quality, take-home prepared food; and such service offerings as child care providers, boot makers, butchers, and bakers (real bakers, not the mass bakery franchises found in American malls). Ensuring their longevity, European malls, and some in Japan and Latin America, are incorporated into neighborhoods in such a way that they become community gathering places, accessible by public transport or bicycle or even (and this is very un-American) by foot.

 
 
 
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