By Tony Samson
THE REPLY, “malling,” to the question on what one is planning to do on a weekend needs no elaboration. There is no follow-up question, “what will you do there?” The mall has become a destination as a leisure activity. Maybe the only obligatory part which can serve as a purpose for going to that air-conditioned symbol of consumerism (buying things you don’t really need) is dining. Here the choices need to be discussed as if embarking on a trip — do you feel like sushi? It is after this lunch that malling really starts.
There is a reason why designers of a mall place the escalators not necessarily in one column going through the different floors. That will be too convenient. Instead, the escalators move randomly from one side to the other, the better for the consumer to be exposed to more shop windows and feel an itch in the pocket where the credit cards are kept. The layout of malls and shops has become a science.
Paco Underhill in his three books on the topic (like Call of the Mall in 2004) describes himself as a “retail anthropologist” and treats shoppers as a distinct tribe. His observations in the early aughts however refer to on-site shoppers, before the rise of e-commerce changed consumer behavior altogether. His observations are still worth noting, especially for our environment where e-commerce is only in single digits. And even those, also shop at malls.
Underhill uses trackers who inconspicuously trail shoppers to observe and mark down behavior from entrance to exit. These firsthand observations are supplemented by hidden cameras throughout a store — but not in the fitting rooms. The research is intended to increase store sales for clients and improve their conversion ratio from browser (window shopping) to shopper (swiping a card at the cashier).
Underhill makes some interesting observations on the American consumer.
Men who fit clothes are more likely to buy them (65%) than women who do the same (25%). Women have not yet made a purchasing decision when they bring clothes to the fitting room. They want to check how the color suits them and how they look in this design. (Does the frilly overlay cover the bulges?) Men just want to check if the pants fit, with all the buttons secured, and the ability to breathe unhampered.
Women with other women stay in the shop longer (eight minutes and 15 seconds) than women with men (four minutes and 41 seconds). It’s not true that only women nag. Men even send text messages (Have you fainted in there?) and dropped calls to hurry up.
Stores then need to distract the male companions from looking at their watches (or, if wandering somewhere else to meet up later, sending text messages — I’m already here at the watch shop) and leave the wife alone so she can buy more. What does he do after two cups of coffee and one chocolate chip cookie?
Maybe our retail anthropologist can learn a few tricks from the local mall designers. Seating areas that only provide relief and no commercial payout have been reduced, if not abolished. One can sit at the food court and look like he is waiting for a partner to bring in the tray of burgers, or at the rim of a fountain in the center of the atrium, beyond the water’s spray radius.
Chairs are generally provided only for diners and those who are fitting shoes to buy. They serve a commercial purpose. Non-revenue seating tends to attract nappers and those waiting for wives to finish fitting clothes. The free rocking chairs (a total of four) in some malls are always occupied.
Walking the mall, even one that is too familiar from being visited religiously each week, is a form of exercise, not just to raise stamina and reduce weight but to test willpower struggling with bank balances.
But has it also become a favorite place for walking the dogs? That’s an unforeseen development by the retail architects, as well as the toilet designs that now need to accommodate political statements.
Still, malling is an accepted leisure activity in an economy where consumption is over 70% of GDP. Clearly, not all are just window shopping. Those inward remittances are quickly put to work.
Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda.