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Mall Life, Future Life, Good Life

ROBERT A. JONES / Essay

January 18, 1998|ROBERT A. JONES

ONTARIO — "You got the clicker?" asks Dennis McGovern.

The forest ranger trots off.

In a minute she's back with the clicker and points it at the forest.

The redwood grove turns on.

A holographic John Muir rises out of the moss and starts to speak. He nods sagely and his lips move. But--uh-oh--no sounds come from his mouth.

The forest ranger points the clicker again and squeezes. Still no sound. She squeezes a third time like an agitated couch potato on Sunday afternoon.

"Agh," she says. "Must be broken."

Oh, well. We mosey out of the redwood forest and console ourselves by playing a couple of holes at Pebble Beach and taking a few laps at Le Mans.

Then I buy a cheap shirt.

*

*

How can I explain this experience? Like the journalist Lincoln Steffens, I feel like I have seen the future. Unlike Steffens, I can't promise that this future works. But it does sell.

It's just possible, of course, that you're not at all confused by a redwood forest that operates with a clicker. If so, you're a better shopper than I am. You know all about Ontario Mills.

In a word, the Mills is a phenomenon. A success beyond anyone's prediction. So big has Ontario Mills become that, in some mysterious way, it has realigned retail commerce in Southern California. And maybe our lives.

You remember when McDonald's used to collect Famous Facts about itself? Like when it sold enough burgers to reach the moon if you stacked them up? Well, Ontario Mills now collects the same kind of Famous Facts.

For instance, it opened in 1996 and drew as many people in its first year as Disneyland. This year it will outdraw Disneyland by several million.

Or, it attracts so many busloads of Japanese tourists that the Mills' tourism director--yes, it has a tourism director--prints his business cards in Japanese as well as English.

Or, it has the highest concentration of movie screens in the world. The busiest Starbucks on the West Coast. The busiest La Salsa and Panda Express. Etcetera.

All of this from an outlet mall.

In Ontario.

Next to Fontana, where the slag heaps live.

I mean, catch my drift here: Ontario Mills is not even an honest-to-God retail mall like, say, South Coast Plaza. It sells the stuff they couldn't dump on customers anywhere else.

Its heritage goes back to those prefab outlet stores in the '70s, where the hopelessly addicted pawed through barrels of stuff that had the brand names torn off. Every few minutes, a pawer would snatch a hunk of stuff from a barrel and drag it over to the cashier like a feral animal.

Just going into one of those stores proved you had the disease. The disease of acquiring. Maybe you bought a shirt that was printed in two colors. Or shoes with flames on the side. Who cared? They were cheap and you could cart them off.

So now this concept has grown, somehow, into Ontario Mills. It has grown into something bigger than the retail malls themselves--and something different. Yes, it's still about cheap, but not only cheap.

Dennis McGovern, the guy in the redwood forest, is the assistant general manager of the Mills. He can't really explain it, though he tries.

"It's the whole thing," he says, gesturing to the small universe of consumerism that surrounds us. "You can't pick out any one part and say, 'That's it.' "

Indeed, from the outside the Mills doesn't even look messianic. It hunkers down, a low one-story, and its foundations sit on a field that once served as a parking lot for the long-gone Ontario Motor Speedway. Look at the Mills from the outside and you could mistake it for just another, well, mall.

But inside, the differences start to appear. People don't seem to be shopping so much as foraging. They go into the cheap shops, finger the goods, then come out and sit. After a while, they go finger the goods some more. The pattern seems reassuring to them.

Before I came to the Mills, I called Linda Humphers, the editor of Value Retail News. She says outlet shoppers are a different breed from the consumerist, shop-till-you-drop crowd.

"You don't go to the outlet mall to buy the perfect pair of shoes to match your winter coat, because you don't know you will find it," she says. "Outlet shopping is more like gathering for the coming famine. You are nosing around, looking for nuts to store away."

Yes, that's it. But at the Mills, it's not the only thing. After the foraging, people often nosh, rest some more and then commune at places like the American Wilderness Experience.

That's the store--"store" is not exactly the right word for this place--that has the redwood forest. For $9.95 you can visit the forest and four other "biomes" of California.

In other words, you can visit nature at Ontario Mills without ever leaving the premises. And it's cheaper than driving to the real thing.

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