Glitz or Basics? What Do Shoppers Want?

IF it is true, as trend-watchers claim, that the shop-'til-you-drop '80s are over, no one has bothered to tell the owners of the Prudential Center in Boston. What began 30 years ago as a landmark office tower and shopping complex in the Back Bay area is being transformed into a 21st-century "urban village," complete with "climate-controlled, glass-roofed courts" and "70 exciting shops."Nor does it appear that anyone has sent news of the supposedly scaled-down '90s to developers of the Mall of America, a monolithic structure rising boldly near the airport in Bloomington, Minn. With 400 shops, a seven-acre enclosed theme park, an 18-hole miniature golf course, a 1.2-million-gallon aquarium, and 13,000 parking spaces, the mall will reign as the biggest shopping center in the United States when it opens next summer. Developers estimate that 40 million people will visit each year, spending an amazing $1.5 billion. From urban village in Boston to suburban sprawl in Bloomington, the battle for the American consumer's heart - and wallet - goes on. Freud's old question - What do women want? - could be updated to read: What do shoppers want? If developers are correct, the answer goes like this: Shoppers want waterfalls and fountains. They want atriums and indoor trees. They want marble and music. Get the stage set right, shopping-mall experts seem to say, and the local retailing drama will be a long-running hit. But which stage set is appropriate for the '90s? One that's relatively small and intimate, "with a distinctly European flavor," like the Prudential Center? Or one that's big and all-American brassy, like the Mall of America? Both will have their loyal fans - and their loud detractors. Already the Mall of America has been criticized for being more circus than mall. And a letter writer to the Boston Globe has complained that the Prudential Center will be "a hodgepodge of styles which will be truly ugly." Yet whatever their size or style, even the most carefully planned malls share certain quirks that exasperate time-short shoppers and keep them from coming back for more. Never mind the glitz and glamour, these would-be customers say. Instead, they plead, try a back-to-basics approach that reflects the charm and convenience of a village green. Consider the courtyards and common areas in a typical upscale mall. Marble floors may be appealing to the eyes, but they are also hard on the soles. So hard, in fact, that a weary shopper often searches longingly - and in vain - for a place to rest. Since sitting is not conducive to spending, the governing principle of benchless mall design seems to be: Keep 'em on their feet and on the move. Once inside the stores, a customer confronts other challenges. The boutique approach - tiny departments within departments - may be cozy, but it leaves a shopper wandering through a maze, wondering: Which way is out? Then there is a similar question: Which way is the clerk? Fountains and potted palms will never take the place of a real live someone who can ring up a sale or help a customer decode the latest computerized price tags, which - with their jumble of inky hieroglyphs - make sizes and prices hard to read. Something restless in the shopper is always bargaining for more. Walking through the labyrinth of temporary walkways at the "New Pru" in Boston - past hard hats and hammers, past artists' renderings of arcades "modeled after the Gallerie Vivienne in Paris," past a "construction billboard" announcing "Days to grand opening: 681 even a reluctant mall-goer feels a rush of excitement at the changing scene. Part of the American dream is the perfect store. It exists mostly as a fantasy, something in a shopper's imagination located halfway between a general store fronting on a town square and a shopping channel where diamonds glitter off the TV screen. The romance never quite dies. "Grand" is still the adjective that goes with opening. And when that event happens again, what shopper is too jaded to rub credit cards against shopping list one more time, hoping "This is it"?

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