It's a Small, MALL World

We're already tired and we haven't even made it to Black Friday yet. sigh.

I was in a mall yesterday. Yeah, ME, in a MALL.  Insert eye roll here. (I don't shop malls. I don't shop major retailers if I can help it. I shop local, I shop small independents, and I shop for vintage items. I choose to support small businesses who sell meaningful merchandise, instead of major retailers who keep regurgitating the same drivvel around every corner year after year. I know - it's a controversial decision.) But my post isn't about that... really... it's about the MALL.

Thirty-something years ago this girl spent far too many hours in mall stores, installing displays of merchandise in windows & slatwall racks.  I wasn't a mall rat, I got paid to be there - but it literally sucked the life outta' me for two years. God Bless Jeans West and Hickory Farms for hiring a high school girl then handing her the keys to the kingdom and saying 'Do whatever you want, just make it look good!'. And I did, even though I winced after spending hours in the flickering blue florescent lights that gave me migraines. I finally recovered when I managed, as an adult, to find other ways to shop.

Then I walked into a nearby mall yesterday, and discovered a time warp:
It looked EXACTLY the same as the Buena Park, Anaheim Plaza, and Mission Viejo Malls did from 1977 to 1980. Dull florescent lighting casting its flickering blue glow across every surface. Flashing and neon lights glaring across the food court, overwhelmed only by the aroma of greasy fried food  - and popcorn from the theater. Music was playing somewhere off in the distant rafters, a tinny, thin nearly warped version of an unrecognizable Christmas song. Mall rats were everywhere - OK, I know, it's this Twilight thing. They are all camping out there to repeatedly see Edward and Jacob and Bella and... blood. Merry Christmas? (I'm old, OK? I don't GET IT.)

Then I started looking into the stores. Holy Terror. Forget the Vampires, people - this was horrifying. Spencers Gifts is still selling the same stuff we bought as gag gifts for friends in high school back in the 70's. There is a 'craft mall' in one space - and despite the presence of some incredible works of art by very talented artisans, it looks like a garage sale or church bazaar because it's all displayed flat on folding tables and hung from pegboard walls. There's a store selling Wrangler jeans (very hot with the cowboy/cowgirl set) but the faded plastic sign over the doorway says 'Country Western Wear'. I thought that term left the building with Johnny Cash?

As I walked along, a never-ending array of product merchandising unfolded to reveal the reason why malls and shopping centers are a dying breed with a ridiculous vacancy rate: Somewhere along the line, creativity died. It's all being done the way it's always been done... with the least amount of change, input, effort, and creativity possible. Christmas decor in most of these stores was limited to some twinkle lights draped hap-hazardly around the entrance and big red 'SALE!" signs in the windows. I was saddened by this lack of spectacle at the beginning of what is supposed to be the 'selling season'. I mean, truly literally sad. These businesses deserve to thrive, to succeed, to grow and provide for their owners, employees, and customers. They need to be inspired, empowered, educated, and assisted so that they can do so. They need a leader...

And as I rounded the corner toward the main anchor store, I had a glimmer of hope in my eyes that I would find the retail equivalent of General Patton: Macy's. This venerable icon of American Retail Excellence and Christmas effusiveness & affluence loomed large at the end of its own wing. The large star in the iconic signage glowed red. I spied some red glints on the main aisle.... but as I drew closer, my heart sank. Windows were dressed with mannequins in red clothes, a red 'SALE!' sign, and three red ornaments no larger than a softball hung from monofilament line. The lights in the windows were overhead florescents, aimed straight down to the floor. They barely illuminated the mannequins. Moving into the store, I saw squares made up of red ornaments perched on ledges and tucked onto plinths behind the makeup counter. The squares were 18" small. The main aisle held several freestanding units holding merchandise, with five to seven of those red ornaments hanging over them, again suspended by monofilament line.

No trees. No garlands. No branches. No snowflakes. No gift boxes with big red bows. No signage swagged across the aisles, heralding a glorious Holiday Season. Nuthin'.  There was not even a perfectly politically correct 'Happy Holidays' to be found.

I only made it as far as the housewares department. It was filled with chrome and glass tables, racks, shelves, and endcap units sitting on white floors against white walls under more flickering bluish florescent light boxes. Plates, napkins, glasses, and appliances were 'stacked & racked' in neat, soldier-like rows. Not one single 'lifestyle' display, not one focused beam of light, not one iota of creativity to inspire a customer to even slow down and look at the merchandise. The only draw was a red tag touting the 'SPECIAL Sale Price'. On every item.

And yet, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, with dozens of moms dropping off legions of screaming teenage girls at the mall theater and then having to kill an hour and a half until they all emerged back into the light, teary-eyed and hoarse from screaming, there were no women browsing, shopping, or purchasing anything in this (or any other) store.

((Edited to add: I can't report on what's happening on Black Friday today, because I am not going out there. My daughter calls it 'going to the maul'. ;0) News reports look good, though.))

The thing is, it's not about '75% off sales' or two hour special offers.
It's about the experience you create. It's about connecting with your customer.
It's about offering what people want and what touches them, not what you think they need to buy, at a price that is fair to both of you.
It's about helping people live better, more creative, inspired, centered, fulfilling lives.
And yes, a new tablecloth can help them do that. If that's what they need to make their family celebration perfect, it most certainly can.

But shopping just for shopping's sake, hitting sales just to save half off of items you don't want or need, and buying a slew of meaningless items to give to people who DO mean something to you is the great myth of retail. The whole world has fallen for this sales tactic, and that has made retailers lazy and complacent. They think they can get by with a huge blowout the day after Thanksgiving, fine details be damned. I wonder how much better they could do for a longer period of time if they'd put some effort into it for the entire season?

If malls and shopping centers and main streets would just realize that success doesn't just mean 'running the holiday rat race' because it's what's always been done, selling the same old things in the same old ways, then retail could revitalize itself. Put some thought, some creativity, some fresh new ideas into it for heaven's sake!

((I WILL add that Bath & Body Works was, as always, a light in the darkness. And busy as heck. Check out one of their well-lit and signed, spaciously arranged, heavily- stocked and creatively displayed stores in any location and you'll see people touching, lotioning, spraying, smelling, and investigating their products. And buying them by the ton.))

I always tell my clients that opening your store's doors every day is like opening your home's front door to guests: it's an Event. Prepare for them - source, order, stock, display, clean, and staff your store. Invite them - send the emails, broadcast the ads, the fliers, the commercials. Welcome them - open the door, smile, say "hello" and "we are so glad you are here". Entertain them - show them something unique, new, inspiring, memorable. Appreciate them - talk with them, get to know them, let them get to know you, and give them something of value while they are in your presence. Finally, Thank them - with quailty goods, fair prices, excellent service, and a handshake or a hug. Yes, every day. If you can't do that, get out of retail and get a telemarketing gig.

Let's leave the 1970's decor and the 1990's attitude behind us, and redesign retail everywhere..... and if that's too much to think about right now, just remember: before you know it, the 'Christmas Rush' will be over and a New Year will be here. A good time to start fresh. What will YOU do in 2010 to challenge the retail status quo?

Image Credit: Life Magazine, 1948. Photographed by Nina Leen; found on Google image search.


  1. hey Deb,
    I worked at Hickory Farms (too) when I was a teenager - but I was one offering the tastes as you walked in and occasionally played the part of the Hickory Mouse standing out front getting people to come in.

    Thank goodness for indies, huh!

    Terri Conrad

  2. this is a wonderful post, Deb...it needs to be read by evry mall store manager..and higher up..I bet you could get a team together and lead the the way to help them!

    Heart Hugs,

  3. You are such an inspiration! Love that you're horrified by the boring displays out there. I LOVE a shop that goes over the top. We did our best with our revamped Milking Parlor/retail store and had a ton of fun doing it. We were on a tight budget or we would have done more. Please check it out and drop me a line with suggestions :)


  4. Deb, Just discovered your blog and I find it so inspirational, informative and well written. Thank you so much for taking a stand against malls. They are a blight on our society!
    Anyways, I own a boutique/gallery in San Francisco and would love for you to visit the next time you are in the Bay Area.
    -Yabette Alfaro

  5. Yabette, when I read your comment I thought 'AM I taking a stand AGAINST malls?'... I hope I don't sound mercenary in my post! I do believe that ALL retailers deserve a chance to succeed, regardless of location. I guess if I AM taking a stand, it's to say to every retailer - whether in a mall, on main street, or in a corner shopping strip - STEP IT UP and stop settling for 'status quo' marketing, merchandising, and tactics. Raise your products and presentation to the level that your customers want! Thanks so much for your comments, everyone.