Why we’re slaves to the shopping mall

How did shopping become a generation’s leisure activity of choice? Dave Kenny spends a day at Dundrum Town Centre — and gets to the bottom of the cult of the mall.

IT’S TWO in the afternoon and I am on a shopping safari. Yummy Mummies are drifting gracefully across the Dundrum plain. Some graze at the perfumery counter in House of Fraser, others linger at cappuccino-filled watering holes. They push their young before them, with perfectly manicured claws.

Behind them, like a retinue, bored husbands keep a respectful distance, gazing disinterestedly ahead and scratching themselves. A small group of them herd together at a shoe shop window, temporarily emasculated.

If ever you need proof that humans are really only pack animals, stand in front of a shop window. It doesn’t matter what the shop sells. It may be the most ignored and unloved building on a street, but stand and stare in its window and you will draw a crowd.

It’s all down to psychology. We’re a herd: predictable and easily manipulated into spending our money.

Today I am in the country’s largest “retail and leisure destination” to observe consumer psychology firsthand. My guide for the day is the affable Don Nugent, Centre Director at Dundrum Town Centre.

He is the man responsible for the day-to-day running of this last remaining Temple of The Tiger Years. Dundrum comprises over 100 shops, including House of Fraser, Harvey Nichols, Hamleys, Hollister, Massimo Dutti, Hugo Boss, Gant and the new Jamie’s Italian. There are over 40 restaurants and coffee shops, a cinema complex, a 200-seat theatre, a bar and a nightclub. It employs 5,500 people (6,000 at Christmas). We are on the third floor, with travelators snaking past, and people drinking coffee watching people drinking coffee. It reminds me of a stationary cruise ship.

“This is what designers called ‘vertical circulation’: the travelators, escalators and lifts. Wherever we have it we have open air cafes. Customers like to people watch and there’s plenty of natural daylight here to do it,” says Nugent.

I observe the crowd below, hoping to spot an obvious ‘Gruen Transfer’. Don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of the Gruen Transfer. Most of us haven’t, but all of us have experienced it.

It’s named after Victor Gruen, the grandaddy of mall design. It’s the point at which you deviate from your main shopping objective and veer off course. The moment when a shopping mall’s “scripted disorientation” has worked on you.

I have set myself a task today. I want to buy a white work shirt from Gap. After the interview is done, I will go straight there without deviation. Or rather, I will attempt to. We’ll see.

There are scores of techniques that shopping centres use to disorientate us. If they’re successful, we become retail zombies, wandering the mall, numb and susceptible to the suggestion that we really need a nutmeg grinder or self-unwinding dental floss. We start to forget what we came for.

Where was I? Oh yes, this “scripted disorientation” has been used by designers since 1956, when Victor Gruen created the first indoor mall in Minneapolis. It follows a few basic principles. According to the Victor Manual, the centre’s exterior should be boring and there must be ample parking. The temperature should be controlled and pleasant, to keep the shopper indoors, and there must no clocks on view to let them know how much time they’re potentially wasting.

The hard mall floors and harsh lighting should make us ache for the relative comfort of a carpeted, softly-lit shop.

There should be mirrors between the shops, as we humans are vain and slow down when we see ourselves. Dundrum doesn’t have mirrors, but Don Nugent tells a story about a skyscraper in New York that was having problems with its lifts.

“There were complaints that they were too slow. Management got quotes from several contractors to speed them up, but opted to put mirrors in them instead. The complaints stopped. People were so concerned with preening themselves that they didn’t notice the speed of the lifts any more.”

The Gruen ‘manual’ also says that shopping stretches should be no more than 1,000ft long as this is the distance after which shoppers lose interest. Music should be used to affect people’s walking speed.

Then there is ‘porosity’. We shopper/hunters like to see our prey so there must be uninterrupted views. There must be no “threshold resistance” or barrier between shopper and product. The mall must be as open — or porous — as possible. Without rain, junkies or other urban worries we are free to concentrate on shopping. Without chewing gum or dog crap to avoid, there’s no need to look down. We can train our eyes at the shop windows.

“We have very few pillars here, so that customers don’t feel the place is cluttered,” says Nugent. “It’s very unusual to find a scheme of this scale where you can stand in the middle of a mall and see both ends.

“Also, all our levels feel like ground floors, each with an entrance from the street, which was the desired objective. This was important in terms of how people navigate the centre.”

Nugent explains how Dundrum’s mall space is organised.

“Levels 1 and 2 are predominantly fashion. The shops are younger and mainstream as you walk up the mall, becoming more aspirational as you get to the north end of the scheme. We had to design this in such a way that people weren’t saying ‘I’m not going up there, it’s too expensive’. We did that with lighting and how we designed the floors. Some buildings have the same flooring throughout which people can find disorientating. Here, we have a mixture of granite and marble, and coloured lights which change throughout the day. “The music changes too. At 7am we start to play ‘easy listening’. Then the tempo is stepped up at 11am. At 3pm we have middle-of-the-road, vocal stuff and then we tone it down again at 7pm.”

The manual also states that seating in public spaces should be uncomfortable to keep people moving. Dundrum has cushioned seating, however. And there’s a clock on the main display screen above Frangos. The centre is well signposted, even though, according to the rules, the exits should be badly signposted so punters find it hard to leave. “We have great services, food and retail to increase customers’ dwell time. The average stay is two hours 45 to 50 minutes, longer at weekends. Saturdays are couple days, Sundays are family. However, when somebody wants to go, it’s our duty to help them. It’s important that people enjoy their time here and want to come back.”

And they do come back, he says.

“Our footfall has held up since 2005,” says Nugent. “It would be normal with a scheme of this scale for it to plateau after five years. We’ve actually grown. We were up to 19.3m in 2011 and this year it’s

19.7m. We can’t take our foot off the pedal though, so every year we’ve brought in star ‘attractions’ like Hollister or Jamie Oliver.”

Those attractions have made Dundrum a fashionable place to be seen. So fashionable that, during the Tiger years, it spawned a designer-clad creature known as the Yummy Drummy. Was the centre responsible for that?

“We didn’t create the Yummy Drummy. What we saw was the phenomenon of people getting dressed to go to the mall. This is where the Yummy Drummy Mummy thing came from. Our core customers are 25- to 35-year-old females. Seventy per cent of our overall clients are women.”

I scan the mall. There are some spectacularly coiffed and garbed ladies floating about the place. There’s no sign of hastily thrown on trackies to go to the supermarket here. The only trackies on display are of the designer variety. And there are Sadolin-hued teenagers in abundance: all high hair, false lashes and Uggs. And that’s just the boys. When I was young, we were constantly moved on by security guards in Dun Laoghaire Shopping Centre. You came to expect it. Not in Dundrum.

“At the outset, we told our security team not to presume teenagers are going to be trouble,” says Nugent. “Forty five per cent of our customer base is 16 to 34. Treat them as our customers of the future.”

Do teenagers spend much money? “Yes they do,” says Don pointing out the success of youth clothes store, Hollister, as an example. “When you strip out the flagship stores like the one in New York, Dundrum Hollister is their number one cash store in the world.”

Despite the recession, people are still shopping at Dundrum. According to Nugent, the overall spend is in “third place behind Dublin and Cork cities”.

“The customer has not hibernated. He or she is still shopping, but doing it in a more competitive way. They’re comparing prices. One of the positive things to have come out of the recession is that the customer is getting much better value. Habits have changed. A few years ago, a certain type of person wouldn’t shop in Penneys. Then they started to shop there and put the Penneys bag into another bag. Now they openly say, ‘look what I got in Penneys’. A lot of the snobbery is disappearing. People will now buy their dress in Penneys and their tights in Harvey Nichols. They’re shopping the spectrum.”

So why do human beings enjoy shopping so much? Wanting to belong to a particular ‘brand’ group is one reason. Sex is another. Psychoanalyst Ernest Dichter first recognised this back in the 1930s. His belief that sex sells even extended to the typewriter. He encouraged manufacturers to model them on the female body, “making the keyboard more receptive, more concave”.

He suggested giving lipstick a phallic shape as this would be a subconscious invitation to fellatio. Lipstick sales increased. Remember that the next time you’re watching a Rimmel ad.

Smoking, according to Dichter, was perceived as virile and a legitimate excuse to stop work and enjoy a moment “sucking at the nipples of a gigantic world breast”. Cigarettes were marketed as a “reward” after a hard day at the office.

Some of Dichter’s ideas were too bizarre for the marketing world and he eventually fell out of favour. Many of his observations are still respected though.

Nugent and I walk past the entrance to House of Fraser’s lipstick department and out into the town centre, where people are sucking on a giant world nipple. He explains that there are invisible, positive manipulations at work in Dundrum too. How to deal with traffic for example.

“Seventy per cent of our customers arrive by car, so we needed to make sure we didn’t create the logjam that everybody initially predicted.

“The developer asked me to look at the carpark from the customer’s perspective. We began by installing lighting that’s three times the average lux level. Then we introduced number plate recognition. Dundrum’s carpark was the first in the world where the ticket machine tells you what level you’ve left your car on.

“Carpark signs on the outside of the building are updated every 15 seconds. We have a million square feet of spaces and it’s important to keep traffic moving. We put 30pc more cars per year through here than Dublin Airport does. They have 30,000 spaces, we have 3,200. We’ve only had one day of logjam and that was due to construction works.”

Then there’s the phone signal. If Yummy Drummies can’t text…

“We have 27k tonnes of structural steel here. The developer asked the engineer ‘will people be able to get their mobile phone signal?’ He said ‘no’. We got a telecommunications expert in. You can now get a signal almost anywhere in the centre, including the car park.

“It wasn’t cheap. Nobody knows we have this state-of-the-art system in place, but they would know if we didn’t.”

We stroll past the mill pond, where people are tweeting and Facebooking. Others are sitting, drinking and gawking under café awnings. There is a genuine town centre feel — because it is in a town centre.

“Some developers wouldn’t touch Dundrum because the site was in a town surrounded by chimney pots. It wasn’t ‘greenfield’. But this was all about rejuvenation. That’s why these leisure facilities are here, from the cinema to the theatre,” says Nugent.

“We have plenty of places to eat, like in any town. We can seat 3,000 people, from Frangos on the top floor to Jamie’s here.” We stick our noses inside. It’s all zinc counters and Parma ham. Lovely jubbly.

“When I first asked retailers to open until nine along with the restaurants, they said I was mad. Who would come shopping that late on a Monday or Tuesday night? Now we have our highest conversion rate on those days.

“People arrive on a mission. They buy what they came for — food, retail, leisure, hair salons, medical centre, adult education centre, in other words all the components you expect to find in any town — and may stay for a meal or go to the cinema. The food and retail work hand in hand.”

Most customers here, in this tranquil mill-pond-shaped oasis, are unaware of the techniques shopping centres and supermarkets use to keep us spending. According to leading consumer expert and author, Tina Leonard, information on everything you buy, and for which you use your loyalty card, is stored.

“Supermarkets analyse this information in detail. For example, they can see that of all the people who bought one item, 30pc also bought another specific product. This may prompt them to place the products near each other.

“The positioning of items on shelves is extremely important for several reasons. For example, men are likely to simply walk down an aisle, grabbing what they want, and then walk back the same way. This is known as the ‘Boomerang Effect’. Shops want customers to see as many products as possible. This is why the men’s grooming aisle is often towards the back of the store, forcing them to walk through it,” she says.

The same technique/trick applies to essential items such as milk, bread and eggs. They’re placed as far back in the supermarket as possible.

“This means that the shop again maximises the time customers spend looking at other products,” says Leonard, author of ‘Your Consumer Rights in Ireland’ (Londubh Books, €14.99).

“The most expensive items are often placed at an adult’s eyeline to ensure they are the first thing they see and therefore the most likely item they’ll buy. Kid’s products with cartoon characters will be placed on the lower shelves.”

The use of canned smells is becoming more common in the US, where the aroma of fresh bread is piped through the air-con to make customers hungry.

“Fresh fruit and vegetables are often the first items you see in a store. This gives the impression — like the bread smell — that the store stocks fresh, healthy produce and is a shop worth trusting in,” says Leonard. That trust must extend beyond the bread and veg shelves if shopping centres like Dundrum are to continue to thrive. According to Don Nugent, customers want to be able to trust in their favourite mall’s ‘green’ credentials.

“There’s evidence from the US that shoppers are being influenced by how ‘green’ shopping centres are. In Dundrum we have a lot of energy-efficient lighting systems and we have waterless urinals. We’re always looking at more efficient waste management. We’ll also be changing a lot of our lights to LED. Studies show that if customers believe you care about the environment, they will be attracted to you. We’re investing in a green future.”

So malls of the future will be more caring. It’s a consoling thought as I say goodbye to my extremely likeable host. I’ve enjoyed wandering around the centre. I’m not deluding myself that unseen techniques aren’t at work here, but they’re benign compared to the more rigid ones espoused by fans of Victor Gruen and sex-obsessed Dichter. As I walk past H&M, I recall a story about how Dichter once got canned from a Pepsi commercial. He had, bizarrely, told the company’s advertising people to “Stop! You are showing Pepsi in all these commercials with ice… You are associating your client with death!” I suddenly feel thirsty. I walk over to a dispensing machine to buy a Pepsi. I then head to Penneys and buy a black T-shirt. I’m in Zara when I realise I’ve deviated from my mission to buy a white work shirt in Gap. I’ve just experienced the Gruen Transfer. And I have the T-shirt to prove it.

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