The Malling of the Nation: Tyranny of the Bottom Line

Call of the Mall , by Paco Underhill. Simon and Schuster, 227 pages, $24.95.

Someone once said that in order to understand the culture and history of a people, you must “flush the johns.” You might also consider visiting a shopping mall. If you’re retail consultant Paco Underhill (a “tall, bald, stuttering research wonk on the cusp of his fifty-third year”), you would spend your time sniffing around 300 malls all across the country, observing American shoppers in their sweatpants and sneakers and taking copious notes.

For all the time he spends in malls, Mr. Underhill seems to hate them, and he has his reasons. “The fact is that the mall phenomenon came along and took the place of the town square, the public zone,” he writes in Call of the Mall , his second book dealing with the science of consumerism. “The mall is a monument to the moment when Americans turned their back on the city.” This comes from a man who lives in Manhattan, and who describes urban centers as the crowning democratic achievement of our civilization. But he also acknowledges that, “Increasingly, cities are becoming the province of the rich, the childless, or the poor.” Malls have stepped in to take their place as one of the only environments where community life is on view, families can relax together and the citizens of different generations and economic classes can mingle. Unfortunately, malls-now well past their prime-are failures on many levels: The complaints range from bad architecture, greasy food and filthy bathrooms to insinuations of racism and censorship. The reason for all this, Mr. Underhill believes, is that malls are not designed or built by retailers, architects or city planners, but by real-estate-development companies whose only concern is the bottom line.

What does it mean when corporations control the “public” spaces? For one thing, it means they aren’t public anymore: Their capitalist owners regulate who goes in and out in the name of protecting their investments. Shopping malls are big business-$308 billion in annual sales, and 14 percent of all U.S. retailing-and their investors’ primary concern is maximizing profit per foot. Mr. Underhill illustrates the resultant tradeoffs by walking us through a typical shopping center (just outside New York City) and deconstructing it toilet by food court by window display. Though he neglects the broader social and political implications of this disturbing trend, focusing instead on improvements that would benefit the mall retailers themselves (who are his real-life paying clients), Call of the Mall nonetheless makes for entertaining reading.

“If you need proof of suburban malls’ smug, insular nature, consider this: They can almost never be easily reached by public transportation,” Mr. Underhill writes. (The same might be said of suburbs generally, which are completely hostile to the carless.) He describes one of the consequences: In 1995, there was a ban on city buses stopping near a mall in Buffalo, and an African-American teenage girl was killed trying to cross a seven-lane highway to reach it. There were accusations of racism and a lawsuit filed by the dead girl’s family against the mall, which settled for $2 million. On the positive side, most malls’ marble walkways are “tranquil” and “lulling,” partially due to restricted access.

Mall developers are open about wanting to discourage youths from marauding in their courtyards. (At what point does restricted access become discrimination?) Mr. Underhill questions the developers’ logic, citing low crime rates and explaining that poor people tend to avoid wealthier shopping areas of their own volition, but he doesn’t dig much deeper.

The developers and their fiscal concerns influence even the most mundane details. Have you ever thought, for example, about why the restrooms at any shopping center are down a dank, out-of-the-way corridor, so isolated that you fear for your life as you scurry towards them? Mr. Underhill explains that from the developers’ point of view, the bathroom is a “necessary evil” with no sales potential; they have zero incentive to make it comfortable. This state of affairs is a particular affront to women, who make up the greatest proportion of shoppers and of restroom users. Mr. Underhill wonders: Do male mall executives not value the goodwill of their female market base? His answer is a defense of the executives’ position: He cites insurance and liability issues associated with bathrooms and suggests that we should be thankful that malls provide any facilities at all. His prescription? The mall should take advantage of this “captive audience” by showing new DVD’s on restroom walls, selling advertising space on stall doors and having the local Body Shop supply the soap. “An entrepreneurial approach to the well-appointed restroom could turn even this place into a profit center,” he concludes gleefully. (The same forward thinking brought TVs to yellow cabs.)

It helps that Mr. Underhill understands the absurdity of his job: “No wonder we look at the mall-at the ambition of it, at the reality, at that already obese teenager stuffing her jaw with a drooling Cinnabon-and we can’t help but wonder: Is this the best we could do?” Unfortunately, he weighs down his narrative with clunky dialogue that distracts from the flow of interesting information. He also constantly reminds us that he’s writing mostly for his potential consulting customers-the Gaps and Starbucks of the world. (This criticism was also leveled five years ago against his first book, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping .)

In a long section of his new book, Mr. Underhill analyzes mall store window displays and berates retailers for making poor use of their entrances. The driving design philosophy is to let shoppers see as far into the store as possible from the corridor, which creates an unsightly bowling-alley effect-in his opinion, it’s one giant wasted opportunity. Worse, “the mall aesthetic has now infected the urban shopping experience.” Anyone who’s strolled down Fifth Avenue recently will heartily agree-and anyone who’s been to the Time Warner Center in Columbus Circle knows that an actual mall has now landed in Manhattan. A discussion of the impact of all this homogenization might have been interesting, but that’s a whole other, weightier book. Mr. Underhill deserves credit for at least raising the questions and for doing it with spunk.

“Theoretically, we could all grow our own food and make our own clothes and build our own houses. But it would be boring,” he writes in an introduction that betrays a creeping insecurity about the importance of his work. “So let’s agree that the saga of humankind can be told at least in part through the story of shopping.” Try to hold onto that lofty sentiment next time you find yourself fighting over a pair of shoes at a sample sale.

Sheelah Kolhatkar is a freelance reporter for The Observer.