"The greatness and the genuine trait of your thought and writings lie on the fact that you positively and interestingly make use of philosophical thoughts and thoughtfulness in order to deeply and concretely cogitate about America's social issues. . . . This does not mean that your thought is reducible to your era: your thought, being inspired by issues characterizing your era . . . , overcomes your era and will still likely be up to date even after your era, for future generations." Bruno Valentin

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Mega-sized Shopping Mall: A 20th-Century Artifact?

Between 1956 and 2005, fifteen-hundred (indoor) shopping malls popped up across America. Then through 2013 at least, none had been built since 2006. The interstate highway system helped usher in the mammoth malls like Mall of America in Minnesota and Woodfield Mall in Illinois; the cold climes made the indoor expanses of warm air particularly alluring during the long winters. The two landmarks among malls would likely fare better than most in staving off even their own respective stores’ cannibalistic online-sales charms at least for a while, absent an upward-revision on global warming forecasts flashing relentlessly on smartphones, tablets, and laptops. The leap from the pedestrian innovations at Selfridge’s department store in early twentieth-century London to Amazon’s Cyber Monday during the 2010s, a silver century later, would seem to be  all about the computer revolution digitizing distance that had once been viewed in terms of social class and then gradually succumbing to closer physical distance, as in Selfridge’s accommodating store.[1]

Even as housewives on a budget joyfully discovered that bargains could be found even in a service-oriented department store without being thrown out just for browsing, aristocratic women returned to the store to purchase fine gloves or perfume astutely advised by a polite, attentive clerk—an antiquated idyllic image of “shopping” a century later in a world saturated by Walmart’s “warehouse” (or barn) mega-department/grocery stores.[2] Indeed, the king himself requested a private showing of Selfridge’s out of curiosity regarding the new thing known as “shopping” and to show himself to be a man of the people (of various social classes). Few people a century later would pause to ask whether the foray of online purchases would make the term shopping obsolete.[3]

Moreover, the sliding eclipse of the hackneyed American mall harkens back to the truism hardly remembered amid all the technological distractions that the world of yesterday is not nearly as everlasting as implicitly promised in its hay-day.

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, the display of Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving, earlier and earlier each year, attested to change in progress. The relative insignificance of this fixation would come to hide the "macro" or "meta" change concerning the mall itself in the first two decades of the next century. 

While the little mall marketers scamper about, scrambling to do the twentieth-century department store one better in terms of a “one stop experience” by highlighting entertainment on top of the “same old, same old” heterogeneous product types being under one roof, no one hardly bothers to imagine the mall itself (not to mention the acutely structured department store) as being of another era—a world already gone—a bygone time somehow vicariously still with us—as if the artifice were a squashed bug mistaking its flinching movements for still being alive. The temporal illusion lies in the extremely slow “squashing” noise of register-less electronic sales. As the niggardly management of Target can attest, the silent killers can be the most devastating, even if the extent of the cyber fingerprints are only fully visible in retrospect.

Amid the wrecking balls eating up memories left and right, the twenty-first century stood wide open for the technological imagination to form. Amid all the excitement, it is no wonder that people who came of age at the mall will look around one day, as if suddenly awakened by nothing in particular, to find that the ‘70s show has indeed gone off air due to low ratings.

[1] Rejecting the “premium” vs. “cost leadership” business strategies, Selfridge used sales-items to draw in business from cost-conscious consumers (not “guests,” as in the artful lie played out on Target’s stage by functionaries whose superiority over the dictionary gives their stores a rather odious odor). Unlike the managers at Walmart and Target a century later, Selfridge did not view the continued presence of refined yet simple sales clerks as mutually exclusive with extending the product-lines “down” to lower priced items (supplemented by relatively broad sales).
[2] While at a Walmart store to buy underwear, I noticed a few plastic bags containing product had been open. An employee was then passing by me so I asked if she knew about it. “How else are customers going to be able to try them on unless they open the bags?” she replied. The sales associate had no doubt concerning her “knowledge” of retail. Had I pointed out trying on underwear violates OHSA regulations, the employee would in all likelihood have dismissed my “opinion” in favor of her own “knowledge.” Doubtless a European aristocrat would not return to such a store again.
[3] To the extent that “shopping” includes browsing, being able to “google search” a product may mean that searching is already replacing shopping; by implication, going to a “brick and mortar” store to purchase or merely pick up the product does not involve shopping. Yet how hard old ghosts fall; it is as people use terms generally without bothering to verify that the respective meanings still apply. In other words, we may speak without thinking more often than we suppose. In fact, some of the herd animals may succumb in weakness to their urge to “push” their meaning as a weapon of sorts. A young assistant store manager at Target once corrected me in demanding I acknowledge that I’m a guest rather than a customer. The cocktail of ignorance, arrogance, and the primal urge to dominate is as toxic and dangerous as it is ubiquitous in American business of the 2010s (not to mention American society).