In late 2003, it wasn’t surprising that flying business class from Dubai to Newark via Amsterdam would result in an interview with Schiphol Airport security, particularly when your U.S. roundtrip ticket was bought in and couriered from Dubai.
“So why is a New Yorker traveling on a ticket bought in Dubai?” the agent asked me.
“By having the Middle East affiliate of my organization [the International Council of Shopping Centers] purchase it in local money, it saved several thousand dollars,” I said.
“Why were you in Dubai?” he continued.
“To attend a conference on shopping mall development in the Middle East–my organization represents mall developers worldwide,” I answered.
The rest of the interview proceeded apace, and with ticket stamped, I picked up bags to leave the podium. Except for one last question: “So, are the malls in the U.S. all the same like the ones here?”
But that’s not really true, as I’ve discovered after more than 25 years reporting about retail and shopping center development, first around the United States, then around the world for trade publications and web sites.
Don’t laugh — it’s a big business that has created vast fortunes and changed local economies everywhere from Anchorage to Ankara, Singapore to Sydney. Developers have created spectacular projects that serve their residents with style — and architectural blights that have destroyed the fabric of the community.
I’m more interested in the former, because after thousands of articles, blog posts and a couple of trade books, I’ve found that you can learn a lot about a people from the way they shop. After all, we’ve been doing it for thousands of years!
While far too many shopping malls are “all the same,” the best ones do something more. They tell us a lot about about their shoppers: their culture, their current needs, their dreams and aspirations for the future. Some centers are marble-laden palaces for the wealthy; others are in countries with an emerging middle class. And a few more are in regions where a safe, organized place to buy basic needs is revolutionary.
Have I found all 80 malls yet? No, I’m still traveling and discovering — and getting advice from some industry friends. (Thank you, Cushman & Wakefield’s Yvonne Court, Marketing Developments’ Stan Eichelbaum, and Ian Thomas of Thomas Consultants for your counsel and support.) Come and learn along with me as I tell these stories, one mall at a time.