Department stores have been described as expressions of 19th- and 20th-century consumerism. In an era marked by increased leisure time, they offered a new experience of shopping as a pastime.
From the mid-20th century, shopping malls evolved as the new department stores. Like department stores, malls bedazzle with displays of goods, presenting them in stylish settings to encourage consumption. They offer many services and attractions, including food courts and cinemas, and feature special events to attract patrons. Like department stores, they organise spectacular decorations for the Christmas shopping season, with Santa in residence.
‘In America 100 years ago, their social critics worried about department stores – that they were glamorous, alluring places that could lead unchaperoned middle-class women astray. There was moral panic that women would be put in a trance by the music and lights, and buy things they couldn’t afford; that shopping was distracting them from charity work and knitting circles; that going downtown to the department stores was a threat to social order.’1
Department stores were mostly built in urban areas, but malls, erected in the era of private car ownership, have generally been sited at a distance from other major commercial centres. Designed and built on previously undeveloped land, their large structures are enclosed, air-conditioned, and protected from the weather. Malls generally present blank, windowless façades to nearby roads or parking areas. Department stores attracted passing foot-traffic with their window dressing, but the striking visual displays of mall retailers face inward.
Shopping as entertainment
As department stores grouped related merchandise on particular floors, similar shops in malls are deliberately clustered together. The flow of foot traffic past shops is carefully planned and controlled by features that include plants, fountains, seating and kiosks. Malls create an artificially lit, air-conditioned world of shopping entertainment. The atmosphere is one of carefree leisure – with an absence of clocks so that the passing of time is less evident. Department stores, too, aimed to bring shopping and entertainment together in a new and modern way.
Walking the mall
LynnMall’s MallWalkers group celebrated 10 years of twice-weekly walks in the mall in 2009. Personal trainer Grace Machin pointed out that the group could keep fit for free in a climate-controlled area: ‘There are no intersections or exhaust fumes, friendly security staff are always nearby and there’s a restroom and water when you need it.’2 The Mall Fit walking group at Sylvia Park has over 100 members aged between 17 and 78. Walkers receive a free pedometer and drink bottle, and discounts from mall shops. The phenomenon has even inspired a book, The complete mall walker’s handbook, by American doctor John Bland.
Comfort for customers
Malls, like department stores, have become much more than sites of consumption. Late 19th-century department stores offered middle-class women a new opportunity to meet, dine and shop in the public domain. Malls also provide a comfortable and safe meeting-place for people of all ages. Shopping has become a more casual affair; shoppers no longer feel the need to dress up. People of all ages and social groups visit malls with friends and family. As well as shopping, they eat, browse, go to the cinema or just ‘hang out’. A significant number come for social contact or ‘people-watching’.
Will malls pall?
Market research has shown that customers prefer their shopping centres to offer an increasingly varied choice of retailers and recreational shopping experiences.
The ‘sameness’ of shopping malls has been criticised. Many well-known retail chains appear in most centres. Nevertheless, mall shopping remains a popular form of entertainment and a frequent leisure activity for New Zealanders.