Inside the Machine

By Underhill, Paco | The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview
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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.

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