It’s a very strange, ironic truth: malls in the United States, which celebrates youth and childhood, really don’t want children in the centers. Sure, they want you to buy for the little darlings, whether they’re yours, your grandchildren, belong to friends, or whatever, but really, they’d rather you leave them at home while you spend and spend and spend. The older they get, the less they want them until they’re gainfully employed, and join the club of the spenders.
On the other hand, malls in China, where childbearing has been limited by law, build entire wings for them.
Why that’s true, however, may be because Chinese malls sometimes are three times the size of their U.S. counterparts. You have to fill all that space with something.
A little history: when enclosed malls first became popular in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, they sold a bit of everything – from department stores to even the occasional supermarket, they were a one-stop shop for the suburban family. That family probably had one car being used by the breadwinner (likely the dad), so shopping was a weekend activity that the kids had to participate in. As women came into the workforce in the 1970s and 1980s, and more people had more cars, malls became more fashion-oriented. Gone were the hardware stores, appliance repair and toy stores.
And very little gets more in the way of shoe shopping than a small child. Do malls in the United States and elsewhere offer family restrooms, rental strollers, etc. to make sure the toddlers are safe and controlled? Yes. Are there actually a lot of stores in the mall that cater to them? Not so much.
Even less appealing, at least until recent years, was the teenager, who’d rather hang out with noisy friends than actually buy something in the mall. At least that was the way the mall managers saw it. By the 1990s, some were trying curfews, others requiring teens to be accompanied after a certain hour. One played Frank Sinatra music to drive the adolescents away. (Shoo-be-doo-be-doo, indeed.)
Contrast this attitude with Golden Resources (Jin Yuan) Mall in Beijing, at 6 million square feet the largest mall in the world in 2004. That’s a lot of space — think three Macy’s Herald Square stores next to each other, or 1.5 Malls of America. It has 230 escalators, restaurants, a skating rink, and 1,000 stores, including an entire wing dedicated to outfitting and entertaining children. Yes, the kids other malls really would rather you leave at home.
In China, malls are built big – it’s a big country with a large population and at some point the stores will get filled. At least that was the idea in a nation where a lot of the real estate development still takes place by individuals or privately owned companies, whose owners want to make a point about their own success and potential. So they often built a lot more space than they needed at that time – or any time, as it turns out. Some are less than half full today. Golden Resources probably couldn’t afford to be turn down a lot of the stores that the managers of U.S. malls wouldn’t even consider.
And it took the six-story Golden Resources time to fill up, though it seemed pretty well occupied with tenants when I visited in 2012. Part of the problem may also have been that the mall is located relatively far outside the center of the city – this is as close to a North American suburban model as it gets in Beijing. Unlike some of the luxury centers in the heart of the city, which really are geared to selling western luxury goods to newly wealthy Chinese and visitors, Golden Resources has a huge assortment of local shops on the top levels, carrying Chinese goods and foodstuffs.
And that is its point – much like the suburban malls in the United States in the 1970s it’s about serving the locals. It’s too far out of town for all but the most intrepid foreign visitor (or someone in the business, like me). It has an IMAX, textile shops, and an entire wing for home furnishings, too. (Unlike a lot of suburban U.S. centers, it also has a cab stand.)
But it’s the sound of children on the upper levels, running around, playing, eating at tables sized for them, and surrounded by dozens of stores selling items for them that is most striking for the North American visitor. The home page center’s website, at this writing at least, features “everything for babies.”
It’s noisy (on the weekends), a little messy and a lot adorable. It’s fun as long as you’re not doing serious shopping yourself. And perhaps even inadvertently, the owners of Golden Resources may be earning the loyalty and affection of the shoppers who eventually will be the noisy teenagers, then the staple shoppers of tomorrow. We’ll see.
Are the malls too big in China? The only larger center in the country, New South China Mall, is 7.1 million square feet and virtually empty. So it’s fair to say the answer is: Yes, for now. After all, there are only a handful of centers the size of Mall of America anywhere else in the world.
But here, they like your kids.