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
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.
(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...
The centrepiece of the mall is a sevenacre amusement park.