Don’t Check Your Wallets at the Door

These days they are everywhere. Local malls, regional shopping centres, and the other more mammoth of the genus have plopped down in just about every community across North America and parts of the world. These one-stop retail facilities represent key contemporary social and cultural touchstones, as well as some significant economic ingredients. But that’s a lot of statistics and high-minded sociology. My interests lie elsewhere. I’m more interested in sounding the depths of what it is like to go to the mall, to take a look at the mall “experience” from my perspective.

In the years of youth, I found myself a resident in towns which really didn’t have a mall, let alone a shopping centre like the Mall of America, with its 520 plus stores and some twelve thousand employees. There was a mall in my hometown. The Kirkland Lake Mall had on average four stores open at any given time, with berths for maybe five or six more. But since those were never filled, I’ll safely toss the of K.L. Mall into the “barely a mall” category.

Perhaps then, I’m in no position to discuss the phenomenon of the mall experience. Possibly…to say the least, over the years I have been exposed to them. I’ve seen them in television shows, music videos, commercials, movies, what have you. I’ve never had the pleasure of working in one, though I know many that have. I’ve watched documentaries and news clips. I’ve read articles in the newspaper and magazines. But these may not really count as qualifications.

The most important thing I have in my favour is that I’ve actually been to some. Well, more than just one. Over the eyars U have been to more than I can count in both Canada and the US. I’ve been from malls from Sacramento to Edmonton to Boston to Truro, Nova Scotia. I’ve browsed through Targets, JC Pennies, Zellers, Sears, Dollar Stores, Toys ‘R Uses, Coles, Bayes, HMVs, SAMs, Radio Shacks… I’ve sat in front of Manchu Woks, A&Ws, Teriyaki Experiences, New York Fries, thinking about where the nearest Shopper’s Drugmart is so I can grab some Rolaids. I’ve seen malls thrive and one in the depressingly empty and poorly stocked throws of death. There are malls with parking lots larger than some towns I’ve lived in. All of them are diversely similar with an unerring consistency.

Sometimes it is hard to look past the uniformity of the various malls and shopping centres in our communities. Notice how every food court has the same five or six restaurants? Or that every mall features the same five or six specialty restaurants? Or that every mall features the same ten or twenty “specialty” stores in every mall (GAP, HMV, Northern Reflections, etc.) buttressed by larger more general stores like Zellers, the Bay, US equivalents like JC Penny and Target, and the increasingly universal Wal-Mart?

Decor wise there is the same consistency too. Everywhere your eyes are met with the same speckled floor tiles and greenish sky lights and the mandatory blue bottomed pools (with or without fountains) where the water has been turned a mild coppery tingle by the mounds of pennies tossed in by children or dysphoric romantics. There are the same ferns, palm and beech trees whose existence defies most arboreal survival Pentateuch.

You also ger a soundtrack. Whether you’re in Point-Claire, QC or Kamloops, BC, your ears are treated to the same unending mix of songs. Often they are culled from the top forty hit lists and the cheapest “greatest hits” collections (or else you’re subjected to their low-key Muzak equivalents) always played at a volume strategically marked for its ability to filter above the bustle of even the most churrigueresque Christmas crowds.

It’ll come as no surprise to a wary consumer that these preponderant semblances are not the product of some coincidental alignment of commercial market demands or popular tastes. It could be a capitalist conspiracy. There are a number of large going concerns involved in the shopping centre industry.

There is a series of large corporate entities operating in a vast number of the shopping centres in the world. For instance, the Westfield Group operates more than one hundred malls in four countries. The Canadian company, Cadillac Fairview, manages shopping centres across Canana and the US. They run prestigious locations such as the Eaton’s Centre and Vancouver’s Pacific Centre, as well as local “ship-of-the-line” malls like Kitchener’s Fairview Park. Twenty Vic Management Inc., another Canadian corporation, also oversees malls across the country such as the extravagant Scarborough Town Centre. Canada’s shining gem of a mall, the West Edmonton Mall, is run by the same company as Mall of America. Triple Five(555) Group Corp, yet another Canadian company. Together they all compete to tighten their nefarious grips on the shopping world.

But conspiracies aside, what does all of this have to do with the mall “experience”? Well, to be fair, a great deal. Has anyone ever noticed that when you walk into the Cadillac Fairview Mall, they are practically walking into the same mall with the same stores, restaurants and decor? Or that all the stores have the same products, layouts, and happy-smiley dead-eyed employees trying to make ends meet while looking hospitable at the same time.

There are the same smells.

The same headache-inducing florescent lighting.

The same constant drone of a shopping crowd. They’re always there and always the same.

However, there is always an attempt to hide these uncomfortable consistencies. The lighting is mixed with a petty amount of diffused “natural lighting”. The inviting savoury smell greasy restaurants or lingering traces of disinfectant hide the smell of human bodies and their waste. Constant noise is smoothed over by endless muzak. Plants, pools, and skylights are strategically placed to offset the austere inorganic environment. Every effort is made to provide a safe and comfortable shopping environment.

After all, the shopping mall industry is only after your money. The need to create a relatively acceptable environment for you to do this is necessary to stay competitive. Which is fine, if that’s all you want. But at some point “a safe and comfortable shopping environment” was overridden by something akin to a Hollywood mentality. Like Hollywood movies, each new shopping centre has something new, something more. New displays are added. Theme parks built. Miniature submarine voyages installed. New stores, retro stores, theme stores, arcades, water parks, wave pools all put in to make going to the mall more exciting. But just like the big budget Hollywood films, behind all the glitz and splashy effects lurks the same old story: “Come to the mall, spend your money and then go home.”

Everything about shopping malls is designed for you to have fun, but you can’t stay if you don’t have any money to spend. Security guards will harass you for loitering if you sit at the Second Cup sipping the same cup of tea for too long. Store employees will come up to you and give you a frank “can I help you with anything?” signifying that you should state your interest in purchasing a product or ship out. Eventually any mall goer short on funds will give up in boredom and head off.

In the end the mall experience is mostly about spending money. Which is fine if you gave some. If you don’t, well, you can always watch MuchMusic. Trust me, you’ll get your fill.