Saturday, October 28, 2006

All About Shopping Malls

Macy's, Hechts, Sears, "cool" specialty stores, Christmas sales, model railroad shows, baseball card shows, and so much more! This is why people love going to the shopping mall. Or maybe the convenience of having so many different places to shop at one location is the real reason. Maybe, shopping malls are popular because Fortune 500 executives and government officials have colluded to turn us into mindless, yet efficient, consumers of the dazzling array of mostly useless stuff that can be found at the local mall.

So, in about 400 words I'm going to cover everything the budding social theorist (social critic, culture critic) will want to know about the sociology of shopping malls.

1. Why do teenagers like to hang out at malls? I assume that teenagers still like to do this. The sociological explanation may be simply that there are other teenagers and they are all (generally) at the mall without their parents. Freedom, movies, junk food, friends, and romantic opportunities can all be found at the mall on a Friday night!

2. Why are multi-level malls have stairs and escalators spread around the mall that way? If you often visit medium to large shopping malls you probably notcied that pattern that down escalators are often located some distance apart. You have to walk through part of a level to get to the escalator to the level you want to reach. Probably, mall designers want to force you to walk around and look at more stuff. The more stuff you have to look at, the more likely you are to buy something on impulse.

3. How many malls are there in the United States? Mmm, at the moment I'm not able to think of anywhere you could look for that number? Perhaps Googling "shopping malls in the United States" and "number" would work.

4. How are malls changing? Are there more now than at some particular time in the past? Are there fewer malls today? I suppose there is some year before which nobody was trying to keep count of the number of malls in the United States. You can bet that somebody, somewhere has been keeping track.

5. Why do malls have so many features in common? All shopping malls have some of these features: food court, movie theaters, customer service/information desk, security, stroller rental, "anchor stores" (big department stores like Sears), kiosks, vending machines, ATMs, and Christmas decorations. Malls generally host community events like the aforementioned model railroad shows and baseball card shows. At least 50% of shopping malls that have Christmas decorations put them up in the same week (second week of November?).

You can bet that most of the architects and managers grew up in North America and went to American universities, where they learned the same things about design and about the "proper" design of a shopping mall. These same people probably belong to the same social networks and so are exposed to the same sorts of ideas. When they do surveys of what mall tenants and visitors want, they will get answers from people with relatively similar sets of ideas about what a proper shopping mall should offer.

6. Are shopping malls good or evil? Well, shopping malls are mindless objects and cannot, at least in theory, be good or evil. As a "social technology" designed to efficiently sell goods and services malls might be considered good. The shopping mall appears to be a very popular social innovation. Maybe things like shopping malls can be justifiably labeled "good" or "evil" because of the intentions of their creators, or because of their social consequences. Whether an object can truly be good or evil, in any sense of those words, is a deep (and rather boring) philosphical issue.

I'll stick with the sociological questions about shopping malls. As one would expect, some people are critical of the shopping mall. Why? Well, aside from the environmental impact implied by all that paved-over land and all that traffic, the collection of chain stores at malls tends to wreck the homegrown downtown shopping experience that so many old people and you small-town people are familiar with.

Other observers of contemporary society point out that shopping malls perform many of the same social functions as those quaint downtowns: places to shop, places to socialize, and places to have community events. Maybe the fact that these things tend to be done differently at a mall is really a problem. Maybe the quality and quantity of social interactions at a mall don't measure up to what people had in the old downtown shopping district. Or maybe not. Maybe the criticism of shopping malls is just some conservative (or reaction against social change.

OK, next time I'm going to post the inevitable Halloween blog. The specific subject would be a secret if I knew the specific subject, which I don't.

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Blogger et tu said...

Hi, i found this article really interesting and useful. I'm actually writing a dissertation on something thats similar to this. I'm studying architecture and this semester we have to write a dissertation. My dissertation talks about a culture's influence on architecture and how todays culture is one of consumerism and commercialism. My focus in on malls and I'm actually looking at how the society reflects in today's architecture. How the design in the building/spaces today can divide or segregate society, like it has always has. I know this article was posted roughly 5 years ago and expecting a response is a little far fetched, but i would really really appreciate some feedback on the work I'm doing. So if it's possible please let me know.. Tha nks

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