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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Sociology of Shopping

Air Date: Week of

Paco Underhill (Photo: Envirosell)

American consumers have both their genetic disposition and the manipulative science behind consumerism to thank for that nagging desire to go shopping. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with shopping expert Paco Underhill about just how big a role malls play in our lives.


GELLERMAN: ‘Tis the shop ‘til you drop season…a time for holiday cards and credit cards when millions of Americans do what we do best; head to the malls and shop. There are about twelve hundred shopping malls in the United States and store consultant Paco Underhill has visited more than his fair share. Underhill is what you might call a retail anthropologist. But instead of studying the culture and customs of remote societies, Underhill observes, measures, and records how modern men and women shop in stores and malls. He’s the author of “Call of the Mall, the Geography of Shopping.”

Paco, welcome to Living on Earth.

UNDERHILL: Thank you, sir.

Paco Underhill (Photo: Envirosell)

GELLERMAN: Paco, in your book you cite a statistic going back to 1970 in U.S. News and World Report. They conducted a poll and they found that Americans spend more time in malls than anywhere else except for work and home. Do we know how much time the average American actually spends in a mall?

UNDERHILL: Well, one of the issues is that whatever that average time is it is getting less. We are visiting the mall less frequently we are going to fewer stores. But it is still the principle crossroads of many Americans living in a suburban location.

GELLERMAN: Well, what is it then about Homo-consumer that has us going to the mall less?

UNDERHILL: Well, some of this is about the changing status of women. If we think about mall culture it’s based in sort of the family of the fifties where you have a working father and a mother at home. The mother was desperate to see other people’s faces and went to the shopping mall.

GELLERMAN: You write that shopping is a social activity performed by couples and families..,..wherein the female takes the lead role but all others must equally be catered and cared for.

UNDERHILL: I think one of the issues we face as a species is that we have uncoupled ourselves from our traditional roles. It used to be that men were hunters. If they went into a store they had to kill something and drag it out the door to feel successful. On the other hand, the female of the species was programmed to be a gatherer. She actually got some pleasure from the act of looking and got some reward for being the family purchasing agent. In 2006, many women are working. They don’t have the same amount of time. They’re also, while there still may be the family purchasing agent, they have money of their own to spend. So the traditional relationships that we have had to shopping are very much in transition.

GELLERMAN: How are shopping malls dealing with this decline in the number of customers and the changing status of women?

UNDERHILL: Almost all developers across the world have recognized that they have to make the transition from being landlords to being place makers. I saw in a shopping mall in South Africa a couple of really neat innovations. One is they took the roof of the mall’s parking garage and turned it into a drive-in movie theater. The other was they put in a stadium for high school sports off of their food court.

GELLERMAN: I’m reminded of what Yogi Berra said and what you do. He said you can observe a lot by looking and you do a lot of looking.

UNDERHILL: Well, we observe or follow or track in a typical year about 40,000 people. And we have developed a database that uses more than a thousand different measures to look at how people move in a variety of public settings.

GELLERMAN: The stores with the smallest windows like Cartier, Tiffany, the jewelers, the high level jewelers….it seems to me that they’re telling you ‘don’t come in.’ At least they’re telling that to me.

UNDERHILL: If you’re a high-end merchant you desperately want your audience to self-discriminate. You don’t want the average bloke walking down Fifth Avenue to come in and take up valuable space in your store. In general, the more open the storefront is the more low-end the market they’re serving.

GELLERMAN: When you walk into a mall you see people couples walking around. They’re not talking to each other. They’re talking on their cell phones. I’m thinking about how a shopkeeper, the store, might exploit the cell phone. You know, you’re walking in front of their store and you get an advertisement.

UNDERHILL: Well, this is certainly one of the technological possibilities. It is perfectly possible now for them to track that a cell phone user is walking past the store to be able to segment that cell phone user based on data mining. So that they know what their age, where they live, their income level, even how much money they make or what size they are. And then deliver either a call or a text message going you know if your interested in a size 14 Missoni blouse why don’t you come on in because it’s on sale. I think that’s a little scary.

GELLERMAN: This whole subject really does cut through who we are as a people it seems to me.

UNDERHILL: You know something? One of the things I love about my job is that I think retail is one of the dipsticks to the changes in our culture. That what makes a good store, what makes a good shopping mall is in a constant state of evolution. And that merchant culture has to respond to the changes that we are going through as a species. And, therefore, the manifestations of those changes are ones that we see as we look at stores and shopping malls across the globe because the truth is always transitory.

GELLERMAN: I thought it was very curious that Mohamed Atta, the terrorist, who went shopping the night before he flew a plane into the World Trade Center, isn’t that kind of bizarre?

UNDERHILL: You know something? There is something called shopping therapy and it’s true for both men and women. The act of moving through a shopping setting is one that gives us distance. We find it curiously therapeutic.

GELLERMAN: Distance?

UNDERHILL: Distance. It means that it turns our fantasy life on. As I move through a store and I’m looking at goods my mind is taking whatever it is and dividing it into the lifestyle that I have versus the lifestyle that I might want to have. This is part of the reason why particularly two women can go to a shopping mall, spend an entire day, buy nothing and have a fabulous time.

GELLERMAN: Well, Paco Underhill, it was a real pleasure. Fascinating stuff.

UNDERHILL: Thank you, sir.

GELLERMAN: Paco Underhill is president and CEO of Envirosell, a consulting company based in New York.



Envirosell, Inc.

Publisher’s website for “Call of the Mall: The Geography of Shopping”


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