Shopping Malls: Form vs. Function

Looking down across one of Forest Fair’s shopping Districts from the second level.

Sunlight filters through the glass entrance doors to Forest Fair Village’s “District B,” spilling across a polished wood plank floor. The short corridor is devoid of visitors, a handful of empty retail spaces on either side offering little reason to linger. A strange silence hangs in the air: there are no echoes of distant shoppers, not even the expected dull churning of the escalators to dispel the surreal solitude. As I turn the corner and gaze down what seems to be an endless, two-storied throughway illuminated brilliantly by arched skylights at the far end and decorated with an array of whimsical shapes and colors, the full realization of just how empty the place is hits me. Save for a gated entrance to a Babies “R” Us, now accessible exclusively through exterior doors, and an entrance-turned-display for one of the mall’s last anchors, not a single storefront is occupied.

The Changing Retail Landscape

You don’t have to look very hard these days to find evidence that all is not well with traditional retailers. Stories about store closings, layoffs, and bankruptcies seem to appear in the news on a weekly basis, and terms like “restructuring” and “downsizing” are commonplace among reports of lagging sales and unexpectedly falling earnings. One of the many examples is Macy’s, who recently announced that additional stores would be closing in 2017 after a round of shuttering last year. This venerable company has managed to survive for over one hundred and fifty years, a period that impressively spans the Civil War, two World Wars, and the grinding poverty of the Great Depression. This certainly lends a sobering perspective to the shifting, highly competitive retail landscape in which it now finds itself struggling to survive. Macy’s is hardly alone in its fight: other veteran retailers like Sears, J.C. Penney, and Kmart have taken steps to reduce their overhead and trim underperforming locations, lest they be forced to take their final bows and exit the stage completely.

The abundant use of skylights gives Forest Fair’s interior a bright and welcoming feel.

Shopping malls have been a familiar fixture of the American suburban landscape for decades, serving as an iconic embodiment of our prosperity and economic strength. While the idea of a centralized marketplace is hardly a uniquely American phenomenon (one of the first examples can be traced all the way back to ancient Rome), fully enclosed malls began appearing here in the mid-1950s, experiencing explosive growth and development that carried well into the 1970s. Indeed, it was certainly not uncommon to find a given suburban area hosting multiple successfully sustainable enclosed malls during their heyday. As technologies advanced and online shopping became commonplace, customers found themselves not only able to search for products anywhere in the country and have them shipped right to their doorstep with precious little effort, but also compare prices and read reviews from other purchasers to inform and assist their buying decisions. Where retailers once levied enormous influence over their customers’ buying habits and decisions, the power was now firmly in the hands of the people.
The decline of the shopping mall’s popularity in recent years has yielded a range of sentiments, including nostalgia and melancholia from those who hold joyful memories of time spent there, along with a growing interest in the dead or dying mall as a social phenomenon. While retail history and mall culture are each fascinating areas that could undoubtedly fuel lengthy discussions of their own, my intention here is not to track the rise and fall of malls in a historical sense, nor to examine the various economic or demographic factors that may or or may not have contributed to changes in consumer behavior over the years. In terms of its ability to remain a viably competitive provider of goods and services in an increasingly connected, specialized, and digitally-driven society, the fate of the shopping mall as we have come to know it may, in fact, be justifiably sealed. I would argue, however, that the mall as an experience is something far more difficult to replicate in the digital world.

Engagement For All Senses

Color and a sense of whimsy bring a unique personality to Forest Fair’s public areas.

Catching the scent of a nearby Cinnabon or Mrs. Fields drifting through the air can incite olfactory bliss. The same might be said of passing by a Bath and Body Works and sampling its strangely enticing, complex aroma, or pondering the mysterious cologne drifting out from within the black shuttered facade of an Abercrombie & Fitch. A mall can indeed be a feast for the senses, particularly at holiday time, when the sights and sounds of mission-bound shoppers and seasonal music imbue the halls with a distinctly infectious energy. It’s hard not to get caught up in it all – at least on some level – no matter what the purpose of your visit might be. I was fortunate enough to have been born just before the end of the era of downtown department stores, when retailers would go to great lengths to create whimsically inspiring window displays to delight both young and old and entice would-be shoppers inside to explore their aisles and shelves. The mall equivalents proved even more imagination-provoking: lavish, colorful Easter displays with working kiddie trains, or faux North Pole wonderlands complete with elves, candy canes, and (of course) grand old Kris Kringle himself. Even as I grew older, it was hard to pass by these areas and not at least feel a small twinge of childhood wonder and joy, and the idea of allowing a holiday season to pass by without paying at least one visit to the mall seemed downright unthinkable. Yes, there were always the less enjoyable aspects of holiday shopping – the long lines, the multiple passes down a particular parking lane jockeying for a spot. But somehow, these always seemed to pale in comparison to the rest. Shopping for gifts at the mall seemed to be just as much a part of the entire holiday experience as putting up a tree and stringing up the outside lights.

Despite years of tenant vacancies, Forest Fair’s interior remains surprisingly intact.

Shopping online can be almost clinical in its efficiency. Select your e-tailer of preference, choose your product via category, search box, or whatever other means proves effective, click “add to cart,” and check out. There are no lines to wait in, no parking spots to find, no overworked sales associates to track down, and less likelihood of the store being out of your desired size, color, or other criteria of preference. Within a few minutes, your card is charged and the item will begin its journey to your doorstep, regardless of its point of origin. Perhaps you spent a small amount of time whittling down your selection, or comparing prices to see which e-tailer was offering the best deal, and oh, yes – there might have been the matter of retrieving that promotional coupon or code you received via email. Simple, quick, and as experience-free as possible – that’s the beauty of consuming via the Internet. Got the wrong size or color? No problem – just pack it back up, take it to your local post office, and a replacement will be on the way shortly. Once again, there are no lines to wait in, no excuses to concoct, and no judgmental stares to endure. It’s about as interaction-free as it gets.
This lack of tangible interaction, however, is also what may ultimately stymie a lot of the joy and excitement from online shopping. There’s little sense of engagement, either with your environment or the items that you’re purchasing. Picking a shirt off a rack and feeling its material, or taking the lid off to smell a candle, or seeing the iridescent radiance of a piece of art glass as you hold it up to examine are all things that clicking a “Buy Now” button won’t afford you. The same goes for wandering by racks of items that you might never have thought to even glance at online, but that manage to grab your attention because of their unexpected beauty, or courtesy of a cleverly conceived display. The best that one might hope for from an online experience is that the shopping process is as streamlined and easy to navigate as possible. I recall spending hours at Borders Books & Music browsing the shelves for anything that struck me as being worth a look. I might have come into the store with a specific title in mind to purchase, but that was rarely the full extent or most memorable part of my experience there. I loved smelling the coffee brewing in their cafe, hearing the mellow, artsy strains of their signature music, and looking forward to some relaxing discovery time among the shelves. I’ve lost track of how many books I purchased there over the years based solely on being able to pick up and leaf through them, many of which were from sections that would not have fallen within my normal range of interests.

Experience as Personality

One of Forest Fair’s many empty store spaces.
This weathered entrance overlooks a decaying, empty parking lot.

Forest Fair Village (also know as Cincinnati Mills), located on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio, may look fairly ordinary and unimpressive from the outside, but its polished wood floors, wide, open corridors, profuse skylights, and uniquely colored decorative features are at once architecturally stunning and instantly welcoming. Despite its obvious lack of tenants, the entire space resonates with its own undeniable character, including its grouping of similar store types into “districts.” Walking its empty halls still gives the visitor a sense of what it might have been like to shop there during its all-too-brief heyday – a period cut short by mismatched demographics, incoming competition, and shifting tenant strategies. Forest Fair is not alone in its identifiability and character. Whether it’s a particular architectural or decorative style, a location, or the assortment of tenants currently in residence, a mall could almost be said to possess a personality of sorts. There is a certain feel that one gets upon entering, which can range from friendly and welcoming to prestigious and avant garde to outdated and in desperate need of repair. That becomes part of the shopping experience as well, whether the visitor is consciously aware of it or not. Unfortunately, the ability of an online store to convey a similar sense of personality or character is rather limited – at least for the moment. Font choices, brand-related graphics, site layout and design, and the user interface may serve as digital counterparts, but they are woefully lacking when it comes to the kind of interactivity and multi-sensory immersion offered by a physical environment. I suppose one might be able to try and imagine what the coffee smells like at a Barnes and Noble cafe when visiting, but it seems far easier, more immediate, and infinitely more satisfying to actually be there in person.

What Really Matters

An unattended information desk backs to Forest Fair’s central court.

As romantically nostalgic and idealistic as all of this may sound, the laws of supply and demand still rule at the end of the day. Customers vote with their wallets, whether that’s in the form of which products or services they want, how much they are willing to pay for them, or where and how they prefer to receive them. As much as music artists and record labels may pine for the days of highly profitable physical media sales, they can’t turn back the clock and magically erase the existence of digital formats and streaming. Change is inevitable in any market, and so it is here. Even the most convincing argument designed to extoll the virtues of mall-based shopping won’t change consumer habits or values. If convenience trumps experience from the shoppers’ standpoint, that is what they will choose, and trying to convince them otherwise may be a frustratingly difficult road to plow. While it is impossible to turn back the clock, being aware of the differences between shopping as an experience and shopping as a rote task – something to be checked off on a “to do” list – may hopefully bring a greater appreciation for the mall as a uniquely valuable place in and of itself, not simply as an arguably outdated vehicle for serving our consumerist needs and whims.


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