The mother of malls
For Britain's newest social tribe, a row of shops containing a food store, post office and off licence would not sustain life. Today we have shopping malls, and mall materialists need a centre the size of the Starship Enterprise for life's necessities.

Twenty-one years ago this week, the mother of all those malls opened. Brent Cross shopping centre, off London's North Circular Road, celebrated its birthday. Shoppers were offered tea and coffee at the 1976 price of 25p (it's normally pounds 1.25). Models sashayed down the walkways wearing 1976 fashions: flared trousers, floral kaftans, wet-look boots and cork-soled clogs.

A 21st birthday is a shameless marketing ploy worthy only of a mall. Does it mean that it's now a grown-up place to shop? Has it been drinking in pubs, voting and having sex for several years? Will it be going to university?

Back in the baby years, that opening week didn't go entirely smoothly, recalls Zubi Peera, fashions manager at John Lewis. Some customers became overexcited at the thought of something new and imaginative, that they couldn't get in a high street.

"An elderly customer, convinced that Brent Cross was one enormous shop, came up to the perfume counter in John Lewis and tried to pay at one till for items from all over the centre - Boots, WH Smith, Fenwick, C&A, Marks & Spencer."

Her mistake illustrates the fact that most mall shops, such as M&S, John Lewis and Knickerbox, could swap windows and few would notice. For those who value variety, malls are not part of life's rich pageant.

"In the early days, there were more individual people who owned one or two shops only," recalls Alan Witkin, of Waitrose, who is chairman of the Brent Cross Traders' Association. "In some cases, they were given large sums to move out - by bigger shops eager to take their place."

Today, the only really individual shops are Godiva Chocolates (selling Kosher chocs for its Jewish patrons) and a museum store selling copies of Tutankhamun's pet cat. No one else, presumably, can afford the rent - pounds 300 a square foot, as high as in Knightsbridge.

What a knockable subject the shopping centre is: a focus of righteous indignation. The malls are accused of stripping the high street of stores, forcing people to get into cars and car parks.

And from the point of view of the small shop owner it is hardly surprising. During the Seventies the number of corner shop grocers fell sharply, from 86, 565 in 1971 to 51,494 in 1979. Today there are fewer than 30,000. After the Monopolies and Mergers Commission paved the way for supermarkets and petrol stations to sell newspapers and magazines in 1992, 2,000 shops were closed within two years.

The march of the mall is inexorable. City centres in county towns such as Aylesbury, or busy suburbs such as Watford, have long disappeared. Pretty churches in Exeter and Bromley stand pathetically isolated on traffic islands.

But despite the complaints of environmentalists, people flock to the successors of Brent Cross. The hot new Lakeside Shopping centre at Thurrock, in Essex, has seen "footfall" increase from 9 million in 1991 to 24 million last year.

Marjorie Price, who lives right next door to the Brent Cross car park, has no truck for the critics. She shops there three times a week and still uses local shops for special things, such as hardware and camera film.

"Brent Cross gets blamed, but the things I buy there are things I would have bought in the West End. Selfridges misses out, not the local shops. All shopping areas need to be managed. Hendon Central, built in the Twenties, is getting filthier, with deserted shops. If they turned them from 50 shops to 25 that worked, it wouldn't be so bad."

Professor Robert East, who researches consumer behaviour at Kingston University, Surrey, is even more rhapsodical. He claims: "For people with boring lives, mall shopping is interesting, stimulating and glitzy. In my last research, only 1 per cent of people actually disliked the shopping trip."

The professional middle classes may be snobby about malls, but in 1976 we got what we wanted. Mugging was on the increase; Brent Cross had visible safety in the shape of the security guards. Most small shops could not offer the ease of credit card transactions and guarantees of sound goods; Brent Cross and the chain stores were more reliable. Refunds for poor merchandise were easier to come by, and credit cards had become the main means of exchange. High streets were busy, wet and polluted; now you could park under cover, sit down with the children, and find a clean lavatory when you wanted one.

Today, ironically, we prize the one-off, the shops that specialise in health foods, second-hand clothes, flowers. Individualists can stay away, and seek antiques shops elsewhere. Mall materialists like the idea of antiques, but they buy only repro. John Lewis stocks that.

Nor do they want to buy scruffy, dirty vegetables, however charming the greengrocer is. The market area closes next month at the Arndale Centre in Wandsworth, south-east London. "Community essentials such as the fishmonger and watchmaker are being transferred into kiosks down the main walkway," says the centre director, John Holt. "We're spending pounds 17m on refurbishing, with themed restaurants and virtual reality games."

To stay alive, the centres must evolve. The Government has stopped smiling on them, and they cannot expand because of clampdowns on planning permission.

Hillary Hudson-Oldnall, marketing manager of Lakeside shopping centre, says: "We're highlighted as the bad guys that spoiled it all. But supermarkets did most to spoil it, and we deliberately don't have a supermarket here." She has a cheaper area for smaller shops and foreign store try-outs, so that shoppers can see the latest. She is proud of her two supervised play areas.

What of the future? The supporters of shopping malls think they are providing a lead to town planners. "Town centres have got us to copy," says Hillary. "It is hard to criticise a well-designed, managed environment, where parking is free and easy."

Changes in our shopping habits

The move to supermarkets

1976: 524 supermarkets; 51,494 independent small shops. In 1976, of our pounds 8.8bn grocery budget, about 70,000 small shops took about 30 per cent of our spending (pounds 2.7bn). Supermarkets took about 50 per cent of our spending (pounds 4.4bn).

In 1971 we spent less on food: pounds 4.2bn. By 1979, we were spending pounds 13.4bn on food, a rise of pounds 9.2bn.

1995/6: 777 supermarkets; 31,382 small shops. Of our pounds 54.3bn grocery budget, the supermarkets took 65 per cent (pounds 35.1bn). The small shops, which accounted for 80 per cent of our food shops, took about 10 per cent of our spending (pounds 5.3bn).

Sources: AC Neilson, Shopping centres' own statistics, Biss Lancaster.

The spread of shopping centres

Brent Cross, North London: Opened in 1976, with 400,000 visitors in the first year; in 1996 they had reached 12 million.

Merry Hill, Birmingham: Opened in 1985 with 11.5 million visitors in the first year; by 1996 the number of visitors had reached 23 million.

Metro, Newcastle: Opened in 1986 with 12 million visitors in the first year; in 1996 numbers were up to 28.5 million.

Meadow Hall, Sheffield: Opened in 1990 with 20 million visitors in the first year; by 1996 visitors were up to 30 million.

Lakeside, Thurrock, Essex: Opened in 1991 with 9 million visitors in the first year; by 1996 the number of visitors to this most successful of shopping centres had reached 24 million.

NB These figures may possibly be inflated by the fact that video-monitors in shopping centres are known to count pushchairs and even large bags as "visitors". Metro Newcastle's figure is based on car parking, assuming an average of 2.5 shoppers per car.

New out-of-town shopping centres currently under construction

Bluewater Park, Dartford

Cribbs Causeway, Bristol

Dumplington, Manchester

White Rose, Leeds

Brae Head, Glasgow

Shopping guide for the mall materialist, 1997

Piazza: cold, open square supposed to embody upmarket metro chic. One-off shops enlivened by street entertainers and pickpockets in the middle, with one freezing couple taking cappuccinos in the open air cafe.

Galleria: empty shopping centre with cinema and water feature (fountain) in the middle. Contains either gift shops designed to suck your credit card dry in five minutes, or "retail outlets", aka cheap factory shops.

Retail park: no park, apart from car park. Understaffed warehouses the size of aircraft hangars containing electrical appliances which, when you ask to buy them, are often out of stock or damaged. Take a picnic and Portapotti. Restaurants and lavatories are rare.

Shopping village: shops miles from a village. Expensive restaurants to take advantage of the fact that you are a captive. Do not confuse with "village shops" (see Postman Pat books or The Archers for more details).