The Call of the Mall: A Walking Tour Through the Crossroads of Our Shopping Culture by Paco Underhill

Simon & Schuster February 1, 2004  240 pp. $25.95

Copyright © Steven E. Alford  


Breezy and brief, Paco Underhill’s The Call of the Mall is a follow up to his enormously successful 1999 volume, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping.  His new book capitalizes on the advantages--and suffers from the defects--of his previous effort.

Fifty-three-year-old Underhill styles himself a “retail anthropologist.”  He owns Envirosell, an international research and consulting business whose “specialty is looking at the interaction between people and products, and people and spaces.”  As he notes, “this book is not about the official history of shopping malls and the tycoons who build and manage them.  This is about malls, stores, and parking lots as experienced by us consumers.” 

Underhill is a cheerful fan of commerce and an opponent of the mall, “a monument to the moment when Americans turned their back on the city.” 

For him, “the adventure and romance associated with trading has been lost along the way.  Somehow, the glorious history of commerce has culminated in a sanitized architectural cliché in which you typically find not exquisite treasures and exotic wares but rather eight different styles of sneakers or sixteen varieties of chocolate chip cookie.”

Malls and mall culture cannot, however, be ignored.  Currently there are around 1,175 of them in this country.  By 1970, U.S. News & World Report established that “adult Americans spent more time at malls than anywhere else except for home and work.” The Mall of America in Minnesota “has more visitors than Disney World, Graceland, and the Grand Canyon combined.”

Yet, it may come as a surprise that “this is an industry driven by real estate, not retailing.”  The ugly, industrial appearance of the mall and its box-like stores do not express the attempts of retailers to attract customers, but the efforts of developers to squeeze the maximum amount of profit from a construction project.

This tension between real estate and retailing gives rise to a dilemma in understanding the mall: the question of whether the mall is “the suburban Main Street or a tightly controlled fortress devoted to a single activity: retailing.  Or is it somewhere in between?”

Underhill describes some of the curious contrasts between malls and city shopping.  For example malls actively discourage public transportation.  “If you can’t drive here, the mall seems to say, you can’t come.”  This allows malls to passively exclude the poor, and focus on their target, “white bread middlebrow median-income America.”

More specifically, Underhill notes, the middlebrow Americans are overwhelmingly female.  As he walks us through the mall, he explains how malls have changed their types of retail strategies as women have entered the workforce in increasing numbers.  (Today, two thirds of them work outside the home.)

Underhill doesn’t see a bright future for malls.  In the long term, he sees them as a speed bump in the long history of retailing, to be replaced by updated versions of the strip mall and, for many, shopping on the Internet.  While he understands the power of eBay, “the flea market of the twenty-first century,” he thinks that the absence of the tactile interaction with products makes virtual shopping successful only for certain types of goods.

Like his previous book, this one claims it looks at the mall from a customer’s point of view, but it does so not to enlighten the customer so much as the retailer.  A better title for the book would have been What’s Wrong With Your Mall, as Underhill systematically points out the myriad ways malls could improve their approach to selling. 

Over even these brief pages, one gets the sense that this book functions best as a promotional brochure for Envirosell instead of an inquiry into the mall’s intersection between customer and retailer.  Underhill’s observations are apposite, and were I mall retailer I would pay careful attention to his observations.  As a customer of this book, however, I felt a little cheated.