Where the World Comes to Shop

Each year more than 40 mil­lion ea­ger shop­pers come to the mas­sive Mall of Amer­ica to “shop till they drop.” Here’s why

Reader's Digest (India) - - Contents - ROBERT KIENER

Wel­come to the great­est of mega-malls.

Ro­man­tics have Paris. Ad­ven­tur­ers have Mount Ever­est. And shop­pers have the Mall of Amer­ica. Here’s proof: It’s late af­ter­noon in early May and I’m fol­low­ing a dozen ea­ger Euro­pean shop­pers who have flown across the At­lantic to Min­nesota’s mas­sive (more than 520 stores spread over 96 acres) in­door mall on their very own shop­ping “pil­grim­age.” Credit cards and shop­ping lists in hand, they have been lured to the Mall of Amer­ica for its high va­ri­ety of stores, low prices and the sheer nov­elty of shop­ping in what some have termed “the world’s orig­i­nal mega mall.”

“We don’t have any­thing even close to this back home; and this is all un­der one roof ! ” says Shima Parekh from Eng­land, as she walks briskly past chic, high-end shops like Henri Bendel, Coach and the Chanel Bou­tique.

Like oth­ers in her group, she is ig­nor­ing the rau­cous amuse­ment park that is at the Mall’s cen­tre and is mak­ing a bee­line for Macy’s, per­haps Amer­ica’s most fa­mous depart­ment store. “I’m go­ing to look for sun­glasses,” she ex­plains as she walks into the brightly lit store.

Liver­pool-based Ir­ish­man Cathal O’Con­nor splits off from the group and pops into the La­coste sports­wear shop, fa­mous for its croc­o­dile logo that adorns the pricey shirts of preppy men and women around the world. “Un­be­liev­able,” says O’Con­nor as he notes the price tag on a green, short­sleeved polo shirt. “This is less than half the price of a sim­i­lar shirt in Eng­land. It’s so in­ex­pen­sive.” It’s a re­frain I will hear time and time again as I shadow this group of keen shop­pers on their first-time visit to the Mall of Amer­ica.

Th­ese shop­pers are just some of the more than 16 mil­lion for­eign visi­tors that fly into Min­nesota to shop at the Mall of Amer­ica each year. They come mostly from Canada, Great Bri­tain, Ger­many, Scan­di­navia, Ja­pan and Latin Amer­ica. Lately, more and more have been com­ing from the emerg­ing ( read: “cash rich”) mar­kets of China, Brazil and South Korea. And they spend—a lot! In­deed, the av­er­age for­eign shop­per spends more than 2. 5 times as much, more than $275 a day, as lo­cal visi­tors to the Mall of Amer­ica.

When it comes to big spenders, the av­er­age Chi­nese shop­per spends $6,000-$10,000 per visit to the Mall. Re­cently, a well-heeled Chi­nese shop­per walked into the Mall’s Ben Bridge jewellers and spent $25,000 on two watches for him­self and his wife.

Mau­reen Bausch, the Mall’s ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent, re­mem­bers a Mid­dle East­ern royal buy­ing $25,000 worth of coloured socks from a store that sold only socks. “That’s a lot of socks!” says Bausch. She also ad­mits it’s not un­usual for a wealthy for­eign shop­per to buy up to $60,000 in one cloth­ing store. Some high-end stores, such as Coach, now em­ploy Man­darin speak­ers to ser­vice this new car­riage trade. Oth­ers have had to limit pur­chases af­ter cus­tomers tried to buy ev­ery item in the store. To ser­vice this grow­ing, lu­cra­tive mar­ket, the Mall of­fers 70 travel pack­ages from 34 coun­tries on five con­ti­nents.

What draws th­ese, and mil­lions of other shop­pers to this 4.2 mil­lion-

square-foot colos­sus? To find out I spent al­most a week ex­plor­ing, walk­ing, talk­ing and shop­ping at what the New York Times has dubbed, “The mother of all malls.”

I start my tour of the Mall of Amer­ica on the busy ground floor with Doug Kil­lian, the Mall’s di­rec­tor of in­ter­na­tional tourism. The Mall has just opened for the day but it’s al­ready bustling with shop­pers. As we walk down one of the mar­bled walk­ways, he ex­plains that the Mall is de­signed as a gi­ant rect­an­gle with four floors of shops, restau­rants and at­trac­tions. “This as­sures us there are no ‘dead ends’, says Kil­lian. “We want peo­ple to keep walk­ing and shop­ping.”

There are also no clocks; man­age­ment prefers that shop­pers “re­lax and not worry about dead­lines” while

- zak, once a sta­ple of the Mall’s pub­lic ar­eas, has been dropped. Man­age­ment thought it dis­tracted from each shops’ mu­sic. No store is more than 100 me­tres from an exit; that way shop­pers can leave their coats in their cars.

Like many malls, the Mall of Amer­ica was de­signed with pop­u­lar depart­ment stores, such as Bloom­ing­dale’s, Macy’s, Nord­strom and Sears as “an­chor” stores, one in each cor­ner of the Mall’s rect­an­gle. Th­ese large, pop­u­lar stores drew re­tail traf­fic and were po­si­tioned so shop­pers would have to pass by the smaller re­tail stores to en­ter them. An­chor stores were so im­por­tant to a mall’s suc­cess that man­age­ment reg­u­larly gave them dis­counted rental rates to en­tice them.

Mall de­sign­ers, I soon learn, have raised their art to a sci­ence. Take the en­trance to the an­chor store from the mall it­self. It is called a “throat” and re­search has shown that a short throat is bet­ter than a long throat. The longer the throat, the more re­luc­tant peo­ple are to en­ter the an­chor store.

Bloom­ing­dale’s re­cently closed its Mall store and is be­ing re­placed by sev­eral smaller “ju­nior an­chor” stores. “We are con­tin­u­ally rein­vent­ing our­selves,” says Kil­lian. The Mall’s oc­cu­pancy rate of about 95 per­cent is about five per­cent higher than the US na­tional av­er­age. And man­age­ment has an­nounced a $1.5 bil­lion ex­pan­sion plan that would see it dou­ble in size.

As we walk past a seem­ingly end­less ar­ray of women’s cloth­ing stores Kil­lian ex­plains that there is no sales tax on cloth­ing or shoes in Min­nesota. “That, cou­pled with the low ex­change rate of the US dol­lar, can make our prices seem rock bot­tom to many in­ter­na­tional visi­tors.” He adds that cloth­ing is, by far, the most pur­chased item by all shop­pers.

To pro­mote th­ese sav­ings, Mall man­age­ment oc­ca­sion­ally buys an as­sort­ment of goods, in­clud­ing a range of cloth­ing and elec­tron­ics, from Mall shops and com­pares the prices to the same goods if bought in Lon­don’s Pic­cadilly Cir­cus. “Ev­ery time we’ve done that a shop­per would have saved enough by buy­ing the bas­ket of goods here to more than pay for their

three-day, two-night visit to the Mall, in­clud­ing flight, ho­tel room and food,” says Kil­lian. Lon­don-based Joy Gil­roy, a travel con­sul­tant, and sev­eral of the other Euro­pean visi­tors I fol­lowed as they shopped, con­firmed that prices are low enough to pay for a transAt­lantic trip to the Mall. In­deed, many Euro­peans buy “Shop Till You Drop” pro­grams in which their plane typ­i­cally ar­rives in Min­neapo­lis on Fri­day af­ter­noon. “They be­gin shop­ping at the Mall on Fri­day evening, go back to the Mall on Satur­day and Sun­day morn­ing and then catch their late af­ter­noon flight home. They’re back home on Mon­day morn­ing in time to go to work,” says Kil­lian.

In the cen­tre of the Mall is a sev­e­nacre theme park with 25 rides and at­trac­tions, and the 4.5 mil­lion litre Sea Life Aquar­ium. “By lit­er­ally build­ing the Mall around an amuse­ment park we set out to be­come the na­tion’s first shop­ping desti­na­tion from day one, not just a shop­ping mall,” says Jasper as we watch a fa­ther and son scream­ing with joy as they ca­reen up and down a four-storey-high roller coaster.

Food is a very big deal at the Mall.

It has a wide range of fam­ily and first-class restau­rants, from sushi bars to the classy Napa Val­ley Grille to Fa­mous Dave’s BBQ, restau­rant de­signed to look like a cabin in the for­est. The “All-Amer­i­can Feast” fea­tures a mas­sive bar­beque din­ner of spareribs, chicken, beef brisket, corn, muffins, fries and more.

This wealth of restau­rants is also by de­sign. It max­i­mizes rev­enues by keep­ing shop­pers in the Mall—and shop­ping—longer. A re­cent sur­vey proved that shop­pers spend al­most 20 per­cent more at a mall with a “good food court,” and restau­rant spend­ing at malls is on the rise.

Walk­ing through the Mall with Doug Kil­lian I’ve no­ticed that the tem­per­a­ture seems to be very con­sis­tent. He ex­plains that, re­mark­ably, the Mall of Amer­ica has no heat­ing sys­tem. Thanks to eight acres of sky­lights, the Mall’s lights and the body heat of the 100,000-plus shop­pers who come to the Mall each day, there is no need for a cen­tral heat­ing sys­tem. The in­door tem­per­a­ture varies slightly but is usu­ally around 72 de­grees.

The Mall takes con­ser­va­tion very se­ri­ously. Each year it re­cy­cles more than 2400 tonnes of food waste to a lo­cal pig farm. Weeks be­fore my visit the Mall re­leased 72,000 lady­birds (in­stead of us­ing pes­ti­cides) to com­bat the aphids that feed on the Mall’s more than 30,000 plants and trees.

By the end of my six-day visit to the Mall, I feel like I have vis­ited al­most ev­ery one of its 500-plus stores. But I’ve re­ally only scratched the sur­face.

I joined Cathal O’Con­nor and oth­ers in his group for din­ner at one of the Mall’s restau­rants on the evening of their last day in Min­nesota. As they toasted one another, sev­eral stood up and ex­cused them­selves from the din­ner even though dessert was still to be served.

“The Mall is open for 20 more min­utes,” said one. “We have some last-minute shop­ping to do.” The lure of a bar­gain was too much; they were here to shop till they dropped.

I knew the feel­ing.

The cen­tre­piece of the mall is a sev­e­nacre amuse­ment park.

(From top left, clock­wise) Sponge­bob Squarepants, star of chil­dren’s TV, at the Mall; Amena Ali and Louise Evans shop for cos­met­ics in Macy’s; Cathal O’Con­nor and Nick Colling­wood try on jack­ets in Macy’s; Natalie Hat­field, Char­lotte Green and Shima Parekh con­sider where to be­gin their day of shop­ping.

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