An Unsatisfying Map of the Mall

Retail guru Paco Underhill's latest book sets out to examine the geography of these shopping palaces, but he gets lost along the way

By Kate Hazelwood

To see it today, with its stained, grimy exterior walls and a parking lot sprouting tufts of grass between cracks in the asphalt, we forget the awe and wonder that Minneapolis' Mall of America evoked at its opening just 12 short years ago. Four hundred stores, a seven-acre indoor amusement park with roller coaster, 30-plus restaurants -- the Mall of America was the Taj Mahal of conspicuous consumption.

It turns out the Mall of America was also probably the last gasp of a dying breed, argues retail anthropologist Paco Underhill in his latest book Call of the Mall (Simon & Schuster, $24.95). The heyday of large, indoor commercial spaces with plenty of parking -- generating enough taxes to cover the expenses of entire local school systems -- is drawing to a close, Underhill says.


  He should know: His Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, published in 1999, has become a modern masterpiece, merging research and humor to plumb the purchasing habits of Americans. Underhill showed how even the savviest people become putty in the hands of even smarter retailers who know that consumers' actions are dictated by drives and behavior of which they're not even aware. Envirosell, the New York-based retail consulting firm Underhill founded, continues to thrive -- with offices around the world and clients ranging from Adidas and Ralston Purina to Banco di Roma and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

Yet, in Call of the Mall, Underhill abandons the anthropological approach, opting instead for a leisurely stroll through shopping malls while musing on society and retailing, and talking with other retail experts. Underhill ponders the placement of food courts and rest rooms, men's underwear displays, women's shoes and cosmetics, deluxe vs. downmarket jewelers. None are to his liking.


  Shoppers are scarce in his account -- so scarce it almost makes the reader wonder when he conducted his recon tours -- as he consults with sole customers and lone salesmen. Was it at 9:30 a.m., when the mall opened, or 8:45 p.m, just before it closed?

Trouble is, the book offers no real autopsy to go with its funereal quality. It never seems to answer the questions it raises: Why are malls failing? What can be done about it? Should we even care?

Even more important, the evidence doesn't seem to completely support Underhill's premise. In his telling, malls still emerge as a powerful force, generating $308 billion in annual sales -- 14% of all U.S. retailing, excluding cars and gasoline. Yet, Underhill fails to provide context as simple as year-over-year percentages or revenues. Nor does he offer evidence of corresponding growth among the malls' competitors -- particularly faux villages like Mashpee Commons, in Mashpee, Mass., and the Reston Town Center in Reston, Va.


  Given that cultural insights made Underhill's name, it's curious that this latest book has so few. He concludes that suburban malls represent America's ultimate rejection of cities. O.K., but new urban, suburban, and exurban forces are surely driving the malls to irrelevance, aren't they? As any parent with children playing soccer or doing gymnastics can attest, families have frenetic weekend schedules, and many parents work late into the night, long after the malls close.

Women, the traditional drivers of mall commerce, have so many demands on their time that a trip to the mall is no longer a leisurely stroll but rather a mission to grab that one item the mall is sure to have in the size she's after.

Sadly, Underhill doesn't get into any of this. He makes strong pronouncements and asks tough questions, including "It's no surprise that the mall is such an easy target for American self-loathing in particular" and "Are malls racist?" Then, unfortunately, he follows each question with a mere paragraph or two that dance around the answers. These kinds of observations could -- and should -- fill chapters in his book. As they're presented, a reader almost feels cheated.


  Underhill leaves untouched other social phenomena that have changed since the 70s and 80s: Few responsible parents would drop their 12-year-old daughters at the mall after school for the afternoon, the way moms and dads did 20 years ago. Nor does he get into how the rise of Wal-Mart (WMT ) and Target (TGT ) -- essentially minimalls in themselves -- threaten the mall's existence.

Underhill does explore new and interesting territory in the evolution of malls and retailing customs in other countries. Perhaps the average reader doesn't need to know how upscale jeweler Bvlgari arranges its stores overseas to accommodate men who purchase gifts for mistresses rather than wives. But it's an example of the kind of consumer anthropology that gave Why We Buy its full flavor and The Call of the Mall what little flavor it has.

To be fair, a look at malls' geography is what Underhill promises and delivers. It simply turns out that the psychology of buyer behavior is more interesting than the geography of it. If the mall is dying, it would serve us well to explore why. We might cheer those reasons once we grasp them -- or we might learn how malls speak to something fundamental about Americans as a people, something that's perhaps now fading.

If we're lucky, Underhill will return to his original formula and plumb some of these questions in future books.

Hazelwood is a reporter for BusinessWeek in New York

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.