How I became an expert on shopping centres

'It would only take a dodgy shipment of frozen chicken to wipe out the best brains in the profession'

From time to time, the leading four or five hundred experts in any one field get together so that they can eat, drink and talk merry shop about their speciality. This is an old British custom called a conference dinner. It's a high-risk procedure, because if you gather all the experts in one room, it would only take a thunderbolt, a fire, or a dodgy shipment of frozen chicken to wipe out the best brains of the profession.

And that's not all. Towards the end of the evening they take a further risk. All the experts allow the one person in the room who knows nothing at all about their speciality to get up and attempt to conceal his ignorance for 20 minutes or so.

This is another old British custom called the "after-dinner speech". And it explains what I was doing in a large hall in Manchester the other night, surrounded by hundreds of people who were all expert shopping-centre managers, or training to be shopping-centre managers, or, in the case of John, whom I sat next to, apparently owners of quite a lot of shopping centres.

Seeking to say something intelligent to him, I tried to think of the last shopping centre I had visited, and could only think of an enormous mall I had got lost in at Christmas near Toronto, called Erin Mills, a huge palace of shopping, like the Vatican without the religion.

"Last shopping centre I was in was Erin Mills, near Toronto," I said. "Ever heard of it?"

"Erin Mills was the main reason we got out of Canada," said John, rising to my challenge and going a lot higher. "We had this big place in Mississauga, nearer to Toronto, and it was suffering from the competition from Erin Mills, so I went out there to give them a pep talk. I realised half way through that I was talking a different language. In the UK people spend a lot of time and money shopping, but building a centre is hard because land is scarce and it's governed by ferocious regulations. In Canada, you start from the other end of the game. There's as much land as you need. There are no restrictions. On the other hand there aren't many people, and those there are shop in a different way from us... To cut a long story short, we got out of North America."

Already I was learning answers about shopping centres that I didn't even know the questions to. I think it was John who came up with the pithy definition of why shopping centres work. "Put one shoe shop in a small town, and it will fail. People will go to other towns to see what the choice is, and probably buy there. Put six or 10 shoe shops in a shopping centre and people will go there to shop around, compare and choose."

I can see the point of that. It works the same in big towns where you get a lot of the same outlets in the same small area – bookshops in Cecil Court, restaurants in Soho, theatres in Shaftesbury Avenue – and they all benefit each other...

It was around then, safely after all the formal proceedings, that the fire alarms went off and a huge recorded voice started to repeat over and over again: "Will you please all evacuate the building and go to the nearest exit? Will you please all evacuate the building..."

We all drifted to the exit, though as it was raining outside (it was Manchester, after all) we all defiantly queued to get our hats and coats back first. Man next to me said: "I don't think there's another profession that would have cleared the place so calmly and quickly. Shopping-centre managers are so keen for other people to obey alarms that they will outdo anyone else in obeying themselves."

"It's true," said the man behind us. "We had a practice alarm in our place the other day at 9.30am. Of course at 9.30 there aren't many customers around, and what few there were didn't take a blind bit of notice. They always think it's a false alarm. Which it was. But even so..."

"We get plenty of alarms in our place," said a third man, "and they're always real alarms, and it's always toasters. In cafés. Toasters with rolls too big in them. Always getting stuck and burning. I hate bloody toasters..."

"Do you know what we found the biggest problem with fire alarms was? " said a fourth. "Deaf people couldn't hear them. Everyone else got out. Deaf people stayed to meet their doom. We went crazy trying to find a solution. Then we found it."

"What was it ?"

"Security guards went and tapped them on the shoulder and yelled 'Fire!' in their ears."

"Well, in our place..."

"Think you could get a piece out of this?" said someone else, to me.

"I might have a try," I said.

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