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The Call of the Mall

Underhill works with malls for a living. His company, Envirosell, helps stores become better sellers. To this end they conduct extensive research [outlined in his last book Why We Buy]. This book is about the Mall. Underhill spends a day at the mall -- or several days with different people on different quests -- and uses these outings to elucidate some of the fundamental truths about our relationship to our malls.

Underhill isn’t coming at this, then, as a mall-hater. Then again, he doesn’t truly love the mall. He sees them as necessary evils, and spends many pages describing why this is so. In the course of his job he has observed people in malls for years and years and sees the frustrations and missed opportunities as well as the good sells and innovative ideas. His central premise is this: malls are real estate ventures created by real estate people, not agoras created by merchants. This is one of the reasons they don’t work as well as they can. While each individual store is a selling venture, the overall combination of stores is a real estate venture. That’s why mall bathrooms are so crappy, they don’t make any money. Shopkeepers don’t own the mall, they are governed by the mall.

A corollary to this is another of his major points: many of the big stores in malls have their design decisions made by some guy at Mission Control who has never been to this mall, doesn’t know these people, and doesn’t much care as long as the money comes in. As a result you get a “sprayed out of a hose” look to a lot of mall stores that, with a little more tweaking, could really appeal to customers and potentially increase sales. He asks a lot of questions of mall salespeople and questions in general like “why is dressing room lighting so terrible?” "why can I never find the main entrance to the mall?" “why are some mall stores so confusing... or even foreboding?”

Underhill has one chapter where he discusses mall-equivalents in other countries which is one of the more interesting parts of this book. Otherwise while he may be a little bit of a mall cynic, his livelihood is the shopping industry. That said, even a cynic of shopping or capitalism in general can find a lot to like with Underhill’s mall narration. He’s not expecting you to agree with him, he’s just trying to tell you what is going on.