Plus Ça Change: Lessons from a Mall


current mall/parking lot footprint near my home, showing proposed towers

It has been above 35ºC (close to 100ºF) all week here in Coquitlam. Like most Vancouverites I have no air conditioning. On top of that, I’m on Day 15 since first being diagnosed with CoVid-19. I finally tested negative, but haven’t felt up to my usual long walks thanks to being constantly masked in the fierce heat.

Over the past year, my last post of each month has usually been a kind of meandering reflection on what I have seen, and thought about, on recent walks. So for a change, this post will be about my recent daily strolls through the large (air conditioned) shopping mall across the street from my apartment — A different kind of jungle from that of last month’s bear encounter.

Writers have been predicting and documenting the demise of urban shopping malls for over 40 years. There’s a multi-billion dollar proposal to add 26 towers housing 21,000 people on top of the huge two-story retail mall I’m walking through. In this age of collapse, that’s about as likely to happen as the Singularity or the Rapture, but I guess people have to believe in something.

The owners of this mall are private and secret; it’s fronted by a real-estate/PR firm. They own dozens of malls in Canada, cookie-cutter copies of each other. Apparently most of their financing comes from Canadian and international pension funds, whose investment managers are faithful adherents to the religion of perpetual growth and inevitable progress.

For now it’s a mongrel of a mall, with the usual trendy chains, a food court tweaked to reflect our heavily Asian-Canadian populations, some ancient signage that looks ’50s vintage, and a scaffolded, open but empty zombie of a Hudson’s Bay Company store, Canada’s oldest (and basically bankrupt) corporation. HBC is doubling down on its staggering business losses by bidding to buy the US’s largest remaining (also basically bankrupt) department store chain, Kohl’s, though it looks like a vitamin-store chain is going to outbid them.

Shopping malls were designed as community centres, promising the kind of freewheeling, everyday mix of art, crafts, entertainment, current produce and social camaraderie that ancient agoras and community markets once offered. But then “the market” intervened. Free stuff was jettisoned, and every square metre was leased to whoever could squeeze the maximum number of dollars in sales and margins out of the space. Of course how to do that has changed with demographics, economics and fashions, and many once-proud retailers fell briefly and disastrously out of step with buyers and are long gone.

A few years ago, mall owners here tore out tables near the food ‘courts’ that had been set aside for retired people, veterans, and game enthusiasts to play chess and checkers. Apparently they weren’t buying enough, so the geezers were told to go elsewhere.

There are new signs on the mall entrance doors here: For the first time since CoVid-19 began and customers began to stay away in droves, they’re reopening “extended evening hours” (until 9pm) on Thursdays and Fridays.

But you can’t fail to notice the hand-scrawled notices on the doors of at least five of these high-rent stores, saying “Closed temporarily due to CoVid-related staff shortages.”

As I wander through the mall, despite the turnover in names on the storefronts, I feel as if I am stuck in the past. We’re very close to the point where the world buys more online than it does in stores, yet this mall looks, functionally, like a relic of the Reagan era. It’s almost quaint.

The Chinese, who, unlike us, don’t live in the past, buy much of what they do via livestream shopping, a concept almost unheard of here. The vendor offers an interactive, real-time online show to customers, displaying, demonstrating and explaining the product, answering questions, and modelling its use. More service than a traditional retailer can offer, and no need to leave home.

By contrast, even the Apple store here shows absolutely no innovation or imagination in terms of processes or customer experience. Every transaction is adversarial: How quickly can they get you to buy more than you want and pay more than you planned, plus pay for extended warranties, special adapters, and other hidden charges, and then get you out of the store to make room for the next customer.

In the clothing stores, you have the choice between obsequious attention and being completely ignored, depending on the culture of the store. The staff are both incapable of and forbidden from telling you anything, or offering you anything, that you couldn’t get faster and more easily from their online store. These humans in this zombie landscape are, most of them, essentially robots, and underpaid commensurately. A total waste of potential value.

Why do people come here, I wonder, other than to get away from the unbearable weather outside? I suspect the answer is a combination of habit and imaginative poverty — they don’t know what (else) to do with themselves.

The faces of the younger children display the same kind of bewilderment I am feeling: Why are we here, when we could be doing something fun and interesting? Who are all these people anyway?

So I sit and listen for answers to this question. Unlike most Canadian malls, which are overtly hostile to ‘loiterers’ and offer no place to sit, there is lots of public seating in this one. Because it’s so hot outside, this seating is unusually full.

My first observation is how the demographics of the people in the mall change depending on time of day and day of the week. There are no people-watchers here now — most of us ‘loiterers’ are either tending to children or engrossed in or talking on their phones. But I’ve been here on weekends and late in the day when the audience is younger and more deliberately dressed, and there’s almost as much calculated people-gazing and posing then as there is on the Paris Métro at rush hour.

The voyeur in me instead has to satisfy himself today by taking stock of comings and goings. Mask-wearing is down to about 25% in the mall, an all-time low since CoVid-19 began, and I notice many of these only put their masks on when they enter the mall.

The other thing I notice is that the people coming into the mall look relatively determined and anticipatory. By contrast, far and away the majority of the leavers look sullen and dissatisfied, especially if they have no bags in hand. What’s going on here, I wonder? And then it strikes me, the appeal that this mall has, that has people coming back despite its failures: The mall lures you in with its promise, but never delivers on it. It’s like a bad girl/boyfriend, telling you all the wonderful things they’re going to do for you but never actually doing them. I look at the people going through the exit doors and I see one message on so many of their faces: Oh well — Next time it will be different, better. 

And then, I suppose, they’ll forget, and later there will be something else they’re looking for, something they’re not sure about, and they’ll be back, full of fervent hopes and empty bags. The mall is a place of unfulfilled dreams.

~~~~~

Ever since CoVid-19 hit, and increasingly now due to chronic supply chain issues that will only get worse, there have been major stock-outs in many stores. In the larger stores, you’ll see long empty shelves with “sorry” signs on them, and empty pockets in otherwise-full shelves, where someone has hoarded some specific item, or it’s suddenly just become unavailable. Ask the workers and they’ll just shrug — no one knows when anything will be back in stock.

In the smaller, lower-end stores, that operate on volume not margin, empty shelves are anathema, and are filled with whatever else they can find in the back to fill the space, usually with a slight discount. In the higher-end stores, a half-empty look is fashionable, but they’re even more vulnerable to stock-outs. As soon as you look forlornly at the empty space where what you wanted should be, the chicly-dressed clerks in these stores will rush over and tell you they’ll deliver it to your home, for free, as soon as it comes in. No, they don’t know when that will be. Would you like to come over to the desk here and give me your contact information?

As I wander through one of these stores, a young saleswoman with shining eyes and a huge grin rushes over to her co-worker and says, in a barely-controlled voice: “God I love personal shoppers! A week’s commission in less than an hour!” The co-worker offers a rather jealous-looking congratulatory nod. I have no inkling what this is all about, so I retreat to the public seating area and google: “What is a personal shopper?”

Apparently this is a thing, if you’re too old or too rich to do your own shopping. Some of them are full-fledged “image consultants” recommending looks and products for their too-important-to-shop-for-themselves clients, and then going out and picking the stuff up. Skilled personal shoppers can, the internet says, earn mid-six-figure incomes, but often work long and unusual hours, and their jobs are precarious.

I had no idea. When I later told a friend about this, he said he didn’t know about it either, and added, with a smile: “I thought that’s what spouses were for.”

~~~~~

An interesting phenomenon, at least for me as a long-time advisor to small entrepreneurial businesses, is the emergence of local independent stores in a one-block radius surrounding the mall. These stores have much less variety than the mall stores selling the same type of goods, and they’re actually a bit more expensive, presumably because they can’t get the same volume discounts from suppliers that the mall chains can. But what they do offer is an unhurried atmosphere, and personal, knowledgeable customer service.

I often wander over there, to what is ironically called High Street, to get my matcha, my pharmaceuticals and vaccinations, my organic produce, and other things, all because of the service. They know me. They address me by name. They know what I’m there for and what I like. They will special-order things for me, set things aside for me. They talk with me as if I’m a friend, though I know that’s mostly that special Asian-Canadian politeness I have come to respect so much here.

And they know that, to catch the mall-disillusioned, they have to be nearby. It’s a strategy that works. Unlike those in the mall, these quiet, smart, entrepreneurs’ stores have staying power. Though it’s not an easy life.

So now my walk is over, and I’m back in my apartment, in which the thermometer says it’s 34ºC, the same as outside. I appreciate enormously the invention of ceiling fans, independently by the Chinese and Indians, centuries before electricity. I suspect we will soon have to rediscover such manual means of creating coolth. I take a cold shower and wander back into the living room, naked, with a towel at my feet to catch the drips, stand in the shadow of the fan, and say “Aaaah!”

This entry was posted in Creative Works, How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.