Calling all malls

In ancient Greece, they called it the agora. In Rome, they called it the forum. We call it the mall.

In ancient Greece, they called it the agora. In Rome, they called it the forum. We call it the mall.

Reduced to its essence, a mall is nothing more than a place where merchants gather to attract customers. Put enough merchants and wares together in one spot and you will reach a point where, on the appointed day, people will come from all around to jostle and haggle for the stuff of life. There is nothing quite so comforting or promising or engaging as the buzz of a lively marketplace.

Historically, this phenomenon has occurred in the town square. Every village had one. Every city usually had one or two main ones and several smaller ones. Paris has Les Halles, Venice has Piazza San Marco and Prague has Vaclavske Namesti.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the suburban forum. Whereas the town square grew organically as the result of increasing urban density, it was the very lack of density in the suburbs, aided by the family car in every driveway, that created the sprawl we call the mall.

And because the suburbs are the product of property developers, the mall is less a retail phenomenon than a leasing machine. It looks like it does because of the developers, not the retailers.

In deconstructing the experience, you can see the effect this has had. Let’s start with the approach. Typically a mall is a long, low, flat and often meandering structure surrounded by a sea of asphalt. Get in a little closer and there are still very few cues as to what the place is for, because the perimeter wall is entirely featureless, like a walled fortress.

Beyond the unwelcoming exterior, is there a sense of arrival? The featurelessness of the perimeter sometimes give way to a grand entrance, perhaps expressed by a much taller architectural element. Cities of medieval vintage like Paris and Prague provide us with several examples. They once functioned as gates to the city, and were meant to impress upon the visitor that they were arriving at an important place.

But many malls have overlooked the semiotic significance of such a structure and have replaced it with several nondescript entryways designed more for quick access from different sections of the parking lot than for creating a sense of arrival. The approach and arrival experience have been designed to accommodate cars over people.

Once inside, you are, effectively, in a simulated streetscape. Strange then how most malls have not emulated the kind of experience you have in a real streetscape. On a real street, buildings are not all the same. They are different heights, different finishes, some designed by architects, some not, some jutting out into the pavement and others receding. In other words, the street has texture and variety. It has life.

The mall, on the other hand, has a much more uniform profile. The mall acts more like an envelope than a street, and is probably viewed this way by its owners, who again are in real estate, not retail. That fundamental dichotomy, as Paco Underhill points out in his 2004 book The Call of the Mall, lies at the heart of what is wrong with malls today.

To build on Underhill’s observation, since the owners are not retailers, they tend not to think of their properties as brands. You look at the marketing communications emanating from these properties and are hard-pressed to understand what distinguishes them from each other beyond location. And if they are not thinking of their properties as brands, they are definitely not thinking of them as brand experiences.

This is beginning to change. Some property owners are waking up to the fact that, like retailers, they are competing for their customers’ attention. In the Toronto area recently, some properties have begun to position themselves, but rather than seeking differentiation, they seek sameness. Everyone is calling themselves a fashion destination, even if they can’t really support that claim.

An idea might be to position yourself around your local customer base. Why not get intimate with them and build the mall experience around them? Why not accept them, acknowledge them, even celebrate them? This would require leasing departments to use more customer research to inform their decisions. In a very competitive arena, this might be the way to go if everyone else is trying to be the same.

So here’s the formula: different customers = different brand experiences = competitive advantage. Once the envelope is viewed as a brand, once you understand your customer, it is only a short step to recognizing that what the mall is really offering is a brand experience.

Will Novosedlik is VP brand and communications at Globalive Wireless. He can be reached at