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S. J. DIAMOND

New Twist in Malls Has Town Square Appeal

July 07, 1989|S. J. DIAMOND

It was an intriguing announcement, heralding the building of the nation's biggest shopping mall, and the only one including a full amusement park--a branch of Knott's Berry Farm's Camp Snoopy.

Snoopy aside, the three-level, 78-acre "Mall of America" set to open in the fall of 1992 in Bloomington, Minn., will offer up to 800 stores, 18 theaters and 100 restaurants.

Snoopy will add 16 rides and attractions, including a roller coaster and flume ride, but it won't be just "a lot of heavy metal," says Knott's spokesman Stuart Zanville. It will be a park-like environment, with trees, streams and waterfalls, "the Tivoli Gardens of the Mall of America," says Knott's President Terry Van Gorder.

Immediately dubbed "Megamall," "the big mama of all malls," a "monument to mass marketing" and "the first major combination of entertainment and retail," the project was hailed as an innovation among shopping centers.

"Drawing from a 400- or 500-mile radius," the mall will be part "family gathering place," part tourist attraction, keeping some of its visitors two or three days, says Melvin Simon, chairman of Indianapolis-based Melvin Simon & Associates, lead development partner.

Innovative Mix

Shopping centers have been around for several decades: By 1988, they accounted for 54% of all non-automotive retail sales, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers in New York.

There's nothing new either about shopping malls, basically just shopping centers with grass, trees and flower pots in the middle, sometimes with roofs overhead. There are even some malls that offer amusements, notably Canada's West Edmonton Mall, created by the Mall of America's co-developer, Edmonton-based Triple Five Corp. In addition to its 800 stores are a hotel, roller coaster, submarine ride, water slides, even (for some reason) a copy of Columbus' Santa Maria.

Actually, the innovative mix of entertainment and shopping is an old, even ancient tradition, probably going back to when two camel trains met at a desert crossroad.

The Greek agora, an all-purpose town square, was less casual, drawing people together for commerce and entertainment, governmental and religious services. Rimmed by shops or stalls, planted with trees and flowers, it was the original mall, a center for social activity, games and festivities.

The medieval marketplace had jugglers, acrobats, a dancing bear or two among the local vendors and merchants. Market days or weekend fairs--regular events in medieval and colonial times, and in many so-called primitive countries today--have always mixed shopping and amusements, drawing buyers, sellers and entertainers from all over the surrounding countryside.

It took modern America a while to come around to the concept. The shopping centers introduced in the 1950s to serve the expanding suburbs were rather sterile groupings of a few stores, sometimes branches of downtown stores for people who rarely went downtown any more.

An arrangement of buildings with one owner and shared parking, the shopping center's collection of stores was enough to draw people.

'Where People Congregate'

With the addition of fountains, walkways, sculptures and restaurants, it became a mall, an environment offering both shopping and a shopping "experience," and the addition of roofing (the enclosed mall) let neither weather nor climate disturb the pleasure.

"Theaters started coming into the malls because that's where people congregate," says Simon, "and shopping and leisure came closer together."

Making shopping and leisure time synonymous again is apparently a gift to today's two-income family because working parents have only weekends to shop or spend time with their children (a problem doubtless shared by peasants in feudal Europe).

Hotels, restaurants and airlines have already discerned that people are cramming in family time, providing special activities and prices for children on business trips, weekends away and dinners out.

Now the mall, too, will make shopping a family treat--a daylong outing for the 50% to 60% of Mall of America customers expected to come from within a 150-mile radius (including Minneapolis-St. Paul residents), an overnight vacation for the 40% to 50% coming from farther away.

What's unsure is how much people will actually shop--not a question in a day when this was the only way people could shop. The Snoopy park will get a lot of people to the mall, but it could also keep them from shopping. "You take a leap of faith that traffic translates into sales," says Michael McCarty, Simon's vice president of research.

The kind of retail sales most successfully generated is another question, given the mix of visitors. Tourist traffic doesn't benefit all retailers equally: Nebraska tourists may be less interested in the fashions at Nordstrom or back-to-school shopping at Macy's than nearby Minneapolis residents.

The surrounding mall must therefore offer, like Mall of America, what McCarty calls "a broad cross-section of American retailers."

In a way, it's a recentralization of shopping facilities that were decentralized when suburban shopping centers stole customers from a full-service downtown, and they may all be scattered again when people get tired of the particular amusements or the crowds or something else.

Meantime, it's tempting to seek some profound sociological point in the association of major amusements and major shopping in the Mall of America, but like many sociological points, it could go in either direction.

On the one hand, it reiterates that shopping has become America's premier activity, the basis for most mass gathering and the venue for much entertainment.

On the other hand, it indicates that shopping alone is no longer enough of a draw. And on the third hand, it proves that history repeats itself, that contemporary America isn't as innovative as it seems, and innovation is only a matter of scale and skew.

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