Call of the Mall, Paco Underhill

Simon & Schuster, 2004, 227 pages, C$37.10 hc, ISBN 0-7432-3591-6

After explaining Why We Buy, retail naturalist Paco Underhill sets his sights on shopping malls in Call of the Mall, his second book on the nature of today’s shopping environment. Focused and dramatized through fictive conversations with fellow mall-goers, this follow-up on “the science of shopping” is both a retread and an improvement on the previous book.

Successfully structured as “a day in the mall with Paco Underhill”, Call of the Mall examines the modern institution known as the shopping mall from a variety of aspects, from retail to architecture, security to wilful inaccessibility. In doing so, Underhill shows what’s wrong with malls and why they’re doomed to failure. But don’t take this book for what it’s not: Neither scientific textbook nor anti-capitalistic screed, Call of the Mall is just as focused as Why We Buy on improving the performance of stores, sometimes at the shoppers’ expense and sometimes not.

To give you an idea of how Underhill approaches his subject, consider that he doesn’t take us inside a mall until Chapter 5: In the meantime, he discusses what malls are (a real estate business more than a retail one: mall owners make their money renting space to stores, not selling products), where they’re built (far away from anything else, to keep customers inside as long as possible), how they’re built (not very esthetically) and the whole problematic of finding a parking space. Underhill clearly knows malls: His day job, after all, is to study shopper’s habits, spending hours and hours “in the field”, shadowing shoppers as they normally behave in retail environments. So when he discusses his own emotional attachment to malls, he knows what he’s talking about.

It helps that his writing style is readable like few others. It’s all too easy to be taken with Underhill as he invites us to spend a day at the mall with him. It doesn’t take much to imagine this as a documentary film, as he dramatizes shopping situations with typical customers or invites us to see a food court through his well-trained eyes. Call of the Mall is unpretentious, sometimes superficial, but seldom boring.

At most it can be repetitive, especially if you’re already familiar with his previous Why We Buy: Underhill, after all, has spent his professional career establishing his consulting firm and building his own theories of shopping: If he sticks to the same ideas from one book to another, it’s not dogmatism as much as it’s professional experience. While his tendency to systematize experience can be exasperating, they’re generally on-target: The way he describes male shoppers in malls isn’t quite a perfect match for me, but it’s close enough to make me trust his descriptions of other demographic groups.

But beyond the easy entertainment value of the book lies a series of insights in the world of malls and how they work. If you have ever wondered about food courts, mall toilets, pushcarts, the disappearance of bookstores from suburban malls (hint; it’s not because people don’t read, it’s because people browse more than they buy, especially where they’re waiting for other people), why similar stores are located in clusters or secret entrances to malls, don’t worry: Underhill has studied these things and now he’s ready to tell all about them.

Ironically, Underhill concludes his book by saying that malls are past their heydays. Their “lack of mercantile DNA” [P.202] will prove fatal: Built away from transit routes, slapped together without regard to architecture or communities, those self-sufficient island of shopping are not going to find any supporters when they start falling down (often literally, as they reach their thirtieth or fortieth year). What’s the next step, then? “Big boxes” retailers, on-line shopping or a return to shopping districts? Maybe we’ll have to wait until Underhill’s next book to find out.

Fascinating conclusion, but I couldn’t read the book without tying it to the malls I know and it seems to me as if the Ottawa-area malls have at least a fighting chance. For one thing, they’re all built near transit routes (my own morning bus ride takes me through or near four malls) and often act as transit for people going from one place to another. For another, they’re covered and heated: When you’re dealing with Canadian winters, that’s not an inconsequential factor.

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