Inside the Machine

By Underhill, Paco | The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Inside the Machine

Underhill, Paco, The Wilson Quarterly

I am called a retail anthropologist, which makes me uncomfortable, especially around my colleagues in academia who have many more degrees than I do. For whatever combination of reasons, I've spent my adult life studying people while they shop. I watch how they move through stores and other commercial environments--restaurants, banks, fast-food joints, movie theaters, car dealerships, post offices, concert halls, malls.

In fact, you can observe a lot of a community's life in its mall. Families especially tend not to be on display in many public spaces nowadays. You can find them in places of worship, but they're on their best behavior, and mostly just standing or sitting. Increasingly, cities are becoming the province of the rich, the childless, or the poor; I love cities, but America hasn't lived in them for a long time. The retail arena is the best place I know to learn what people wear and eat and how they interact with their parents, friends, lovers, and kids.

We tend to think of the mall as a recent, primarily American phenomenon, and a rather banal one at that. But the mall has always been with us, in different guises and under other names. Since virtually the dawn of civilization, we've organized our world in part around the function of shopping. Even the simplest agrarian societies needed places where they might assemble to exchange goods, and from that basic impulse came everything else--marketplaces, villages, towns, cities.

Many otherwise fair-minded, intelligent people scorn and despise malls. Some still end up shopping in them on a regular basis. But they're not proud of it. They may not be swayed by arguments about how the mall is a contemporary. version of the souks, bazaars, arcades, bourses, and markets of old. It's true that malls can harm vulnerable downtowns by drawing shoppers away, and that they could be much better places--more imaginative, more alive with the human quest for art and beauty--than they are. But by studying the shopping mall and what goes on there, we can learn quite a bit about ourselves from a variety of perspectives: economic, aesthetic, geographic, spiritual, emotional, psychological, sartorial. Just step inside.

You might think, for example, that retailers would fight to be near the entrances. But take a look at what's just inside the doorway of this mall: a hair salon on one side and a store that sells exercise equipment on the other. The beauty parlor is nearly full, although you can bet these are regular customers, not mall shoppers who have decided on impulse to get a cut and some color. The exercise store is empty, which makes sense--how many treadmills does the average consumer buy? If the shop sells one, it's a good day. You'll sometimes find banks, another low-profile tenant, in these entrance locations. Post offices. Video game arcades. Why do the least attractive tenants get these prominent high-traffic positions?

Call this entrance space the mall's decompression zone. When you enter any building, you need a series of steps just to make the adjustment between "out there" and "in here." You need to slow your walk a little, allow your eyes to adjust to the change in lighting, give your senses a chance to detect changes in temperature. Walk through any door, and your brain has to take in a load of new information and process it so that you'll feel oriented. You're really not ready to make any buying decisions for the first 10 or 15 feet of a mall. The existence of this transition stage is one of the most critical things I've learned in two decades of studying how shoppers move through retail environments. Nothing too close to the door really registers. If there's a sign, you probably won't read it. If there's a display of merchandise, you'll barely notice it.

Because of the transition zone, the best stores in the mall are never near the entrance. The reason is simple: The mall owner charges every tenant a flat rent based on space pins a percentage of sales.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)


1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited article

Inside the Machine


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.