Tinotopia (Logo)
TinotopiaLog → A Trip To The Mall (11 Oct 2005)
Tuesday 11 October 2005

A Trip To The Mall

The Tyson’s Corner Mall, Sunday afternoon.

The big news around here — and this will tell you a lot about what Washington is like apart from the earth-shaking affairs-of-state stuff that goes on in the fancy buildings downtown — is that the big addition to the Tyson’s Corner Mall is open.

Nicole and I were in the area, so we decided to drop in and see what it was like.

We were coming from Maryland on the Beltway, so we entered via the bridge over 123; the idea here is that people coming from the Beltway can then get into the mall via three right turns, rather than a mad dash from the Beltway exit and into the left turn lane.

This winds up shooting you straight at the mall’s new parking garage, which would be great except that twenty feet inside the entrance people entering the garage are instructed by a sign to YIELD to people already in there.

So when the mall is even a little bit crowded, the signal-controlled intersection just outside the garage winds up gridlocked.

And the mall was more than a little bit crowded; it was jammed. It was like the day after Thanksgiving in there. It took us fifteen minutes just to park the car in the garage, because you can’t just zip up to the (largely empty) upper floors and park there. No, to get to the higher floors you have to drive past at least twenty parking spaces (not to mention large roped-off areas reserved for valet parking) on each of the lower floors. This means that you’ve got to wait for people who are leaving to pull out of their spaces, and for the people who are replacing them to jockey their cars around in 23-point turns.

Eventually, though, we crept past all of this, parked the car about 40 feet from the bridge to the mall, and went inside.

Pandemonium. The place was jammed with people, with all that that entails. In malls, a lot of people walk quite slowly, either because they’re too fat to move any more quickly, or because they’re window shopping.

Unfortunately, the trend of cluttering up the mall with all sorts of low-rent pushcarts selling cheap plastic crap means that there’s almost no way to get around these people.

The slow-walkers aren’t the real problem though: the dead-stoppers are. These are people — usually in groups of four or five — stop dead in the middle of everything and have a conversation. They were out in force on Sunday.

I believe that this is something ingrained in the culture. In the 1970s, William H. Whyte — best known among the general public for writing a book called The Organization Man — did a study of urban crowding in New York, Tokyo, and Manila. One of his methods was to make films of urban spaces and see how people distributed themselves. It turns out that this varies significantly from place to place:

Whyte Diagram

(Click for a bigger version)

On the left is a diagram of stationary people on the sidewalk outside a New York department store; on the right the sidewalk outside a Tokyo department store. In New York, people have a marked tendency to stop and loiter bang in the middle of the flow; in Tokyo, off to the side. And yet most of the people standing in my way at the Tyson’s Corner Mall this weekend appeared to be Asian and, unless I am mistaken, specifically Japanese. Clearly the melting pot is working.

But I digress. We wandered around the mall for a while, looking for a bathroom (which we eventually found, and found jammed with people but totally unjammed with such things as toilet paper or towels) and then for something to eat.

One of the big attractions of the mall expansion is the new food court. The Tyson’s Corner Mall did not, previously, really have a food court; it had a little food corridor that really wasn’t up to the task.

The new attraction had done its job, all right: it had attracted most of the population for miles around. We eventually concluded that there was absolutely nowhere to sit, and so gave up on the food court.

The food court is surrounded, though, by actual (chain) restaurants, whose websites I’m not going to link to because they all involve terrible, useless Flash splash screens. Screw ‘em.

The nearest one was TGI Friday’s, so we headed there. There was plenty of seating available there, and the Redskins-Broncos game on TV.

There were six employees standing around the entrance when we walked up, so there was some initial confusion about whom to approach for seating. After this sorted itself out, we were told that a table for two would be a thirty to forty-five minute wait.

The mall is jammed. The food court is packed. There is a gaggle of Friday’s employees blocking the door, and plenty of empty tables in there. And there’s a wait of three-quarters of an hour for a table because (they said) they were having some kind of staff problem. A shift change, maybe, or not enough people working in the first place.

Eventually we wandered down to the Sbarro, in the less-crowded, pre-expansion part of the mall. At Sbarro, it was the usual experience: the food cold before we sat down because paying for it takes forever because the employees move like they’re in a coma; trash all over the place; screaming kids; torn upholstery; paper napkins parceled out one by one by the comatose employees because excess napkin usage must be why they’re not making any money.

If you set out to create a more frustrating, less commodious place, I doubt you could do it. I understand that malls are deliberately manipulative places — this is presumably why, for instance, there’s now a quarter-mile stretch of mall with no way to get between floors except for a very slow elevator — built for the purpose of maximizing revenue. I have no problem with this.

However, it is a problem that the mall and its tenants seem to be taken entirely by surprise by the fact that crowds of people might, you know, show up there and want to spend money. Untold millions of dollars have been spent to create this temple to retail commerce, and the officiants are unable to perform the rite. Why?

Why should I attempt to go back to this place and attempt to do my Christmas shopping? Why should I go back there at all, except to buy something that’s available nowhere else (and nothing they sell there is available nowhere else)? What does this portend for American society and the economy?

It might be dangerous to draw conclusions from the Tyson’s Corner Mall, because it’s quite atypical. The famous Capital Beltway, the very emblem of atypicality, lies about 50 feet from the terrible new parking garage. Still, I cannot help but notice that the St. Louis Galleria (which I wind up in a few times a year) has almost precisely the same problems as Tyson’s Corner, despite being hundreds of miles away in the Midwest. It’s overcrowded (by design); it’s hard to park there; it’s hard to get there because it creates its own traffic jams; it’s hard to spend money there, because everything is operating at 110% of its real capacity; and I get a sore throat there after about a half hour because the air is too dry.

Famous St. Louisan Yogi Berra once said, of a nightclub or something, ‘Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.’ Like most of Berra’s famous one-liners, there’s a lot of truth in the statement’s contradiction, and I think there’s a real danger here for the retail industry.

I strongly suspect that this is a problem with a sharp tipping point, that the half-assed approach to retail will work up to a certain point (it’s working now, right? My main problem is that the place is too crowded), and then, suddenly, hardly work at all. You won’t see a gradual slackening of demand for malls where shopping is toil, something to which the industry could respond: I think that one weekend the retailers will simply find themselves peering up and down the empty malls, asking, ‘Where’s Poochie?’ You read it here first.

Posted by tino at 12:58 11.10.05
This entry's TrackBack URL::

Links to weblogs that reference 'A Trip To The Mall' from Tinotopia.

It is very hard to spot trends in DC that involve people giving up on shopping. All over the web, I hear that times are tough and inflation is rampant. I’m sure not seeing any evidence of that in Washingtonia.

Posted by: Nicole at October 14, 2005 09:54 AM

It is very hard to spot trends in DC that involve people giving up on shopping. All over the web, I hear that times are tough and inflation is rampant. I’m sure not seeing any evidence of that in Washingtonia.

Posted by: Nicole at October 14, 2005 09:54 AM

And yet, people keep filling the malls.

It’s a religious experience not even recognized as such by the vast numbers of people who attend services regularly. We don’t go to malls for any reason other than that they are the temples of the consumer gods that are all we have left to relate to. Brand names are the denominations, but they’re all of the same faith.

Posted by: Ken at October 23, 2005 09:40 PM