Ground up in the money-making machine

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The Independent Online
I went shopping in Oxford Street last weekend and lived to tell the tale. But it was a close-run thing, which left me reflecting on the horrors of modern retailing. Once we step off the pavement and into the controlled sales environment, we enter a war zone. Retailers will use any means at their disposal, and some of the weapons are horrendous: in-house DJs who play pony-tail music; excessive air-conditioning in summer, over-heating in winter, and chemical odours added to recycled air; women in court shoes who douse you with "masculine fragrances".

Every aspect of these locations is designed and managed with a ruthless efficiency. Throughout history, retailing has become more focused - from market squares in medieval towns; through the Victorian developments of the arcade, the department store and the covered market hall; up until this century's traditional high street parade of shops. But over the past 30 years all this has been swept away by the quintessential built structure of the late 20th century - the shopping centre, or to use its American name, the mall.

A shopping mall is a machine for extracting money. Though generally promoted as a place of familial recreation, the mall is a highly specialised and controlled environment, bristling with closed-circuit TV cameras and security, which protects and nurtures only our right to consumer choice. In these respects, as well as its windowless design, it has more in common with a prison or a casino than, say, a bazaar. And though largely unloved by architectural critics, shopping malls have changed the way we live in cities.

The first true mall was Gruen's Southdale Centre, just outside Minneapolis, opened in 1956. A generic mall plan evolved, with "magnet" stores at each end, directing "pull" and "flow" past "secondary units". Research shows the most successful malls are confined to two levels, with adjacent complementary parking and a large focal area for "grazing" at fast-food outlets.

Almost unnoticed, this vernacular has entered virtually every area of our lives. Look at any airport departure lounge, any modern apartment or office block with an atrium, and you will notice its influence. An obvious example is the Broadgate development, incorporating the modernised Liverpool Street station in London. What was once a grim temple to steam- age industry is now reborn as a city worker's shopping grotto, with rail travel just another consumer option. The success of the mall concept has led department stores to use the same methods, hiving themselves off into "themed" areas, breaking up their internal space to encourage customers to "explore new levels of shopping experience". Other inducements include special promotional offers and seasonal celebrations. For example, during the "bridal month" of March, stores expect to sell more china and silver, and will arrange their displays accordingly.

Staff training is rigorous and methodical, and designed to "make the product come alive". Staff wear name tags because research shows that customers feel more at ease when they can put a name to the face of that helpful assistant, even if they never use it. Ah yes, market research. They are out there all the time, asking questions about you and your family, your friends and colleagues. They want to know what you feel, what you think about, so they can make their approaches more direct, less ambiguous, and ultimately more profitable.

Even when we leave the store, the war of attrition continues. At Christmas, high street sales figures are announced on TV: if the stores have not broken all records there is an insinuation that we have somehow let the side down. And if we are not considering some seasonal promotion, we are probably contemplating a bargain in the sales.

But we are battle-hardened veterans. We know the enemy's ways, we speak the same language. Spare a thought, then, for those poor Cubans, who have never seen retail combat. The last bastion of Marxist ideology has resisted the onslaught of rampant capitalism for more than 30 years. One day soon, though, the Americans will arrive, with their air-conditioned stores and elongating mirrors. Overnight, Havana will be smothered in billboards and flyposters, and the walkways of shiny new malls will be choked with those inserts that fall out of magazines. The Cubans won't know what hit them.

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