- The Washington Times - Friday, April 12, 2002

Americans may not shop until they literally drop, but their involvement is essential in keeping alive a $3 trillion business involving almost 20 percent of the country's work force.
Shopping habits shape cities and reflect culture, and a sea change has occurred in how Americans try to buy.
Declining malls are the latest trend. Once hailed as the new promise of American capitalism, the super-mall is scaring away customers because of waits for parking, long walks from store to store and "a stultifying sameness, a McDonaldization," says Washington-based city planner Ann Satterthwaite.
"Thirty years ago, who would have thought the malls would have been imploding like they are?" she said at a recent lecture at the National Building Museum.
The big difference is women, who have less time to shop than ever. If anything, Mrs. Satterthwaite says in her book "Going Shopping," female consumers "precision shop" by zeroing in on exactly what they need instead of leisurely cruising the mall.
Factors contributing to the decline of malls include: Anchor department stores pulling out or sufficiently downsizing, the time-consuming maze of stores and multilevels that make it difficult for customers to find their favorite shops, traffic-clogged parking lots and long walks from the car to the mall.
Dying or dead malls are so common, Mrs. Satterthwaite reports, that the redevelopment of these sites is a huge concern for planners and developers. Redevelopment even was offered as a course topic at Harvard's School of Design during the spring of 2000.
"The blockbuster mall of the 1980s will soon be a dinosaur unless it adapts to a faster way of shopping," Mrs. Satterthwaite says. She suggests the proverbial main street America, immortalized at the entrance to Disney theme parks, is making a comeback, as more than 1,600 small and midsized towns as well as large cities are reviving their main-street shopping areas.
"Shoppers go through something I call the 'Mayberry effect,' where they feel a closer connection to the merchants of a smaller, more quaint atmosphere as opposed to the congestion of malls," says Michael Shmarak, an account supervisor for Ketchum Communications Group in Chicago who has been a retail industry consultant for 10 years.
The main street was where America shopped until the 1950s, when consumers shifted to suburban shopping malls. The latest consumer mode is the town-center concept, where a collection of stores provides the communal ambience once found on downtown main streets.
Bowie Town Center, which opened in late October, was one local shopping complex capitalizing on this idea. The open-air shopping center with curbside parking was the first of this kind for the Indianapolis-based Simon Co. It contains a mix of national retail specialty shops, major department stores, restaurants, a grocery store and service stores along a "main street" that bisects the mall.
The developers were pursuing a "user-friendly and community-friendly design," said Roderick Vosper, a Simon Co. regional vice president. The company began developing a similar shopping center in Garland, Texas, after officials from that city liked what they observed in Bowie.
"Town centers provide a communal flavor that has been missing in the malls," says Mrs. Satterthwaite, who made her first visit to the Bowie Town Center last weekend.
"It has the feel of a contemporary village, with the diagonal street parking, lampposts and benches," she says. "It doesn't have the feeling of oppression like indoor malls; however, it also doesn't have the advantage of the weather-controlled climate."
"People really seem to be connecting with the outdoor setting, and in this climate, the weather is still mild enough for this design," says Jim Cronk, director of planning and economic development for the city of Bowie. The center wanted to provide consumers with the outdoor experience they couldn't get shopping online, he said.
Parking is a crucial consideration. While the Bowie center has more than 4,000 parking places, the lots are specially designed in smaller segments, divided into 10 mini-lots behind the stores, thus avoiding massive mall-style parking.
Mr. Cronk said the layout was chosen so customers would not feel lost in the asphalt but would enjoy fast and easy access to the shops.
"People interaction is encouraged and fostered by the design," he says. "Individual stores are starting to encourage the outdoor connection with patio seating at restaurants." He envisions the town center as a place where people can bump into friends and have ice cream while sitting on a sunny bench and watching children play on the toy train.
The founders of Starbucks Coffee well understood the appeal of consumerism at a street-friendly level. Howard Schultz, founder and chief global strategist for the company, said the 1990s fostered the growth of informal gathering places for a populace increasingly confined to eight working hours in front of a computer.
"Americans are so hungry for community that some of our customers began gathering in our stores, making appointments with friends, holding meetings, striking up conversations with other regulars," Mr. Schultz wrote in his book, "Pour Your Heart Into It."
In response, Starbucks began offering more seating.
"People don't just drop by to pick up a half-pound of decaf on their way to the supermarket, as we first anticipated," he wrote. "They come for the atmosphere and the camaraderie."
American shoppers are increasingly seeking out offbeat and unique shopping options like flea markets, antique shows, garage sales and craft fairs that offer one-of-a-kind goods. From Seattle's Pike Place Market to the District's Eastern Market, vendors sell food but promote community in similar farmers' markets that have become weekly rituals for urban residents.
These shopping alternatives, a reaction to large-scale retail shopping centers, are community meeting places, Mrs. Satterthwaite says, that attempt to get back to the face-to-face transactions that in past decades engendered trust between buyers and sellers.
"Everybody is looking at open-air centers. It's a trend that has momentum," says Mr. Vosper. "It's another option, but it hasn't been figured out 100 percent yet."
But he is not writing the obituary on enclosed malls. "In 10 years," he says, "it will be interesting to see where people will shop, when the newness [of open-air centers] wears off."

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide