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Written by Jay Beskin, BT Contributor   
July 2019

The upside of hitting the mall

TPix_JayBeskin_9-17he City of Aventura has become identified with the Aventura Mall, not only in the eyes of tourists, but in the eyes of South Florida residents as well. And the continued success and even expansion of the mall have become emblematic of the prosperity of our city.

Still, a lot of “experts” and other commentators have been hyperventilating about the danger of tying the future to the business models of the past. They argue that the City of the Future will not be built by brick and mortar.

“Brick and mortar,” of course, is the term for retail stores. Here is Investopedia on the subject:

“The term ‘brick and mortar’ refers to a traditional street-side business that offers products and services to its customers face-to-face in an office or store that the business owns or rents. The local grocery store and the corner bank are examples of brick-and-mortar companies. Brick-and-mortar businesses have found it difficult to compete with mostly web-based businesses like Amazon.com...because the latter usually have lower operating costs and greater flexibility.”

Malls are “brick and mortar” writ large. The entire purpose and benefit of the mall is to condense a series of retail storefronts into one large space that can be traversed by casual strolling down indoor walkways, with no need to dodge automobile traffic.

It is often challenging to park at the mall -- that is true on the street as well -- but once you have passed that hurdle, you are home free without the worry about feeding meters. So a world without brick and mortar is also a world without malls.

That being said, it is arguable that the mall experience goes well beyond the brick-and-mortar shopping experience, offering much more than shopping convenience.

Malls have a culture of their own, and it behooves developers and retailers to appreciate the dynamics of their success. Some of it was anticipated by those very developers and retailers, and speaks well of their marketing vision. But I believe that much of it was unanticipated, and indeed some of it may not be fully comprehended even at this late date. (The first shopping mall is widely believed to be the Southdale Shopping Center in Edina, a suburb of Minneapolis, which opened in 1956.)

Some of the more widely noted elements are the sightseeing element and the social element. A good mall, well constructed and well appointed, can be a great place to window shop. Some retailers find window shopping annoying, because these non-buyers are a kind of tease, peering through the windows without entering or, worse, entering and trying things on with no intent to purchase. They feel that a storefront on the street is more likely to be visited only by serious buyers.

There are two counterarguments that come to mind. (1) Positive attention is always beneficial; and sometimes today’s window shopper is tomorrow’s buyer and today’s sampler is tomorrow’s recommender. (2) The sightseeing culture makes the mall an attractive venue, and ultimately attracting people has to add up to attracting business.

The social side has some downsides as well, particularly when large groups of teenagers, often the surly and disaffected products of uninviting households, turn these venues into large social halls. These kids tend to have less pocket money and more attitude, traveling in packs, which some visitors find intimidating in one form or another. Still, over time, as long as the teens do not engage in actual shoplifting, storekeepers have learned to tolerate them. Some developers believe that well-behaved members of this age group are helpful as space fillers, giving an impression of a fuller and busier environment.

But most of the other social elements are seen as strong pluses. People patronize coffee shops and eateries in malls because they enjoy being surrounded by the vibrancy of diverse crowds walking, talking, and laughing. Groups of friends will choose the mall as a meeting place, where they can choose to either sit down or move around or do a little of each. An interesting subset of this phenomenon is the exercise culture, people coming to walk for exercise or, in early mornings, even to run.

Another element to be considered is safety. As much as downtown streets have more raw and less antiseptic quality than malls, they also have a dangerous edge. We hear stories of women pulled into alleys after leaving downtown nightclubs, but such episodes are virtually unheard of in well-lit malls without dark corners. (Of course, children have been snatched from malls, most famously Adam Walsh in Broward County in 1981.) Generally, the lighting and the many pairs of eyes guard against the types of predators feared by the defenseless.

One of the less appreciated elements on the marketing side is the increased likelihood of unplanned buying. Even if online buying has the convenience of being available at all times in all places, impulse buying online only occurs if the customer has first decided to visit that website. At malls we can find people who made a decision to come to the mall for entirely different reasons, yet a walk past a few shop windows has resulted in several unplanned items being purchased in several different establishments.

I would offer another theory that benefits smaller shops and new products. Namely, there are certain items that would never come to our attention if we had not stumbled over them. Unless they spend large sums on national advertising, we may never become aware of their existence. But a well-placed shop in the mall can draw us in to discover a particular product. At that point, we may not only account for a sale on that day, we may become a consumer of that product or company for life.

A noticeable display in an active mall like Aventura may draw more eyes than an expensive television ad. Nor are these busy, distracted eyes throwing a fleeting glance at a billboard while driving; these are eyes attached to bodies that can follow them into the store to investigate.

All in all, when some developing and marketing wizards cast the magical spell and build a mall that succeeds, there is a je ne sais quoi that will endure. Even your science fiction fantasy of what the year 2100 will look like should include a few malls.

Aventura is blessed to have one of those classic malls, a real winner, one that will stand the test of time. Should the city count on it as a central feature forever? I don’t know. But I don’t think it is going anywhere any time soon.

 

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