Shop Trek: The Next Generation
'Shoppertainment' is coming soon, to a mega-mall near you.
ONTARIO, CALIF. — I've just survived 12 straight hours of high-concept capitalism known as "shoppertainment."
That means between the blur of ogling 200-plus retail stores - built in the shape of a racetrack for fast access - I also: a) rescued comrades from deep-space via virtual reality; b) stood eyeball-to-eyeball with live bobcats, lizards, and badgers; c) got jostled into pulp in a flight simulator; d) participated "in" a movie rather than merely watching one; and e) destroyed fake temples, rode fake jet skis, and skateboarded a fake obstacle course.
It all happened at Ontario Mills Mall, where old-style, buy-stuff-and-take-it-home consumerism is "out" and optimal-leisure-utilization (spend more money and take less stuff home) is "in." Assistant manager Dennis McGregor explained the Mills Corp. strategy to me this way: "Our industry has been stale for a long time, with nothing happening but one regional mall being built after another. Here, we have tried to make it easy for parents, dating couples, families, and kids to come to one location and do it all."
Mr. McGregor calls it "interactive." I call it radioactive. Like a microwave oven, you can get overcooked here in half the time.
Carved out of pristine desert, Las Vegas style, the mall attracted more people this year than Disneyland (18 million). Others are on the way in Nashville, Boston, Honolulu, Charlotte, N.C., Houston, and San Francisco - not to mention six more in Canada, South America, and Japan.
After driving 50 minutes east of L.A., my wife, two kids, and I circled the 165-acre complex with bugged-out eyes (translation: wary amazement) and entered one of 12 color-coded shopping "neighborhoods." Greeted by an animatronic light/sound/movement show, we stumbled into our first attraction: a simulator/zoo/museum/restaurant/store known as "American Wilderness Experience" - the first of its kind anywhere.
Visitors first see the world through the eyes of an insect in a combination wilderness cinema/ride. Then they are disgorged into a giant maze where 70 live (caged) animals highlight seven kinds of California environments.
Next door, we saw a 5-story, 30-speaker, ultra-digital surround-sound "experiential" film theater. Next to that is a 3-D IMAX, giant-screen film auditorium with stadium seating, and two standard movie houses - showing a total of 53 movies.
Across a sidewalk is GameWorks, a virtual-reality video game arcade, created by Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks SKG, Sega, and Universal Studios.
Perhaps most amazing is a "food and fun" restaurant and midway on the other side of the mall. At 60,000 square feet, this football-field-size pleasure dome is known as Dave & Busters. Patrons call it Chuck E. Cheese for adults.
Along the perimeter of restaurants and sports bars are dozens of simulated car rides, virtual-reality games (including baseball and golf), and other casino-arcade attractions. Patrons shell out huge sums of money to purchase hand-held "power cards," which they utilize with a swipe at each machine.
"I used to be embarrassed when I dropped $10 worth of quarters at an old-style arcade," says Jason Mann, a twenty-something insurance broker. "Here I drop $500 a month and think nothing of it." Mr. Mann, a hardcore amusement arcade veteran, says the simulated rides are a giant leap above the previous generation. Jet skis feel like real water is pulsing beneath them, and race cars can feel the rumble of an approaching competitor.
At Ontario Mills, now fully operational after a year of sequential store openings, a typical mallgoer spends three hours- plus per visit, twice the national average. Each one also spends $167 per visit, and sales-per-square-foot are $100 higher than at regional malls, mall officials say.
From the mall's perspective, that's progress. But from the shopper's side?
I have to admit, we expended both energy and salary with great efficiency without that nagging inconvenience of driving to different locations. But for all the rides, games, and attractions, we had a lot less time and money left over for the stores.
Maybe that's why more than one shopkeeper told me the jury's still out on "shoppertainment."