This is the story of two shopping malls, and how they have led to a world in which everything is personalized.
In consumer psychology, there are four general areas that interest the researcher: the person buying, what they’re buying, the message around that thing, and the environment in which the buying occurs.
Rather than overwhelm you with a century of theory in 20 minutes, I’m going to talk about only one teeny little part of consumer psychology: how to manipulate the environment to get a customer to act on impulse.
When Victor Gruen moved to Los Angeles in 1941, he landed in the centre of a city in the midst of urban sprawl - a perfect playground for an architect who fancied himself a bit of an urban designer. He’d arrived on the wrong side of its 1930s art deco heyday; LA’s burgeoning car culture was about to spawn Fast Food and the Drive-Thru. The spectacular downtown with its pedestrian thruways and theatre-lined boulevards was emptying out as people escaped to the suburbs and the cooler hills.
Gruen famously despised the car. He, like many others, saw this new road technology as the scourge of communities, destroyer of the serendipitous encounters of the great cities of the world. Less philosophically, it created clusters of shops that didn't particularly encourage cross-Pollination: people drove to strip malls, parked, picked up and drove away again.
So when our Austrian-born urban architect was given Carte Blanche on a new kind of consumer marketplace, he looked back into his formative years in Vienna and fabricated a physicality that would inspire that but still fit with the American sensibility. And he built it in Edina, Minnesota.
Not, perhaps, the most likely location for a Mittle-European vision of the past. But a revolution nonetheless.
Southland Mall was remarkable for many reasons, but to give you a heads up, all it's innovations live under a banner of trying to get people to stay a while. His answer to the impulse buy was to reimagine the Town Centre by creating a watering hole that would attract retailers and consumers in a biodynamic ecosystem.
You would recognise his first project, Southland Mall, because Gruen was so successful that his design was replicated across the United States and the rest of the world.
It excluded the car completely. The shopping arcade was pedestrian only, which meant people had to bump up against one another. It became a social space, rather than somewhere that was purely functional. His architectural vision was also inclusive - everything was visible from everywhere and pathways and escalators were at the heart.
He designed a piazza at the center - complete with rose garden and fountain, underneath a glass ceiling that kept the elements out. He called it 'eternal springtime’ - a pleasant 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Sociologist Ray Oldenberg would later call it a Great Good Place - a neutral space when people could gather, linger and discuss. It became a home away from home. A nostalgic reflection of consumerism gone by. Giandomenico Amendola writes in Urban Mindscapes of Europe,
‘The underlying model [of the Gruen strategy] is the traditional community, and the everyday life of small provincial cities or of European historical towns, enriched by elements of Disneyland’s Main Street….a nostalgia for a community your can trust, architectural forms that recall the past and people-centred streets…[consumers] are looking for the lost order and the coherence of a bygone world. In ...Disneyland-like shopping centres, people have the illusion to be the focus and the very centre of the city. The underlying design principle is to make people feel like Vitruvio’s Renaissance Man (sketched by Leonardo) who is the centre of a universe he can master.'
And that was psychologically projected onto the retail shops that operated there. Buyers trusted the mall because the architecture encouraged them to.
According to Pierre Martineau in his 1958 article “The Personality of the Retail Store” in the Harvard Business Review,
“The shopper seeks the store whose image is most congruent with the image she has of herself."
That means the customer is in her comfort zone, and will buy more more more.
But that means that the fickle and social nature of personal identity will determine the precursors to impulse buying. Nowadays, Gerde’s Eternal Springtime malls have decayed, or have been dramatically reimagined. The identity of the shopper has shifted away from more pleasant, nostalgic times to something a bit more dynamic and hedonistic. Enter Jon Jerde.
Jerde also went West in pursuit of his American Dream, finding his people in Venice Beach, California.
Jerde's approach to capturing the impulse buy was pure Venice cacophony: overstimulation, a constant freakshow.
It couldn't have been more different than Gruen's.
I've actually made a pilgrimage to one of Jerde's mall opuses, not far from the Southland Mall, near the twin cities of Minneapolis and St Paul. From the outside, it looks like a normal shopping experience. But on the inside, well, there’s a roller coaster.
The Mall of America is the Jerdian vision of consumption: no silence, no boredom, unrelenting stimulation and overarching excitement. If roller coasters aren't your thing, at the Mall of America, you can also get married on the top floor, and follow your ceremony with an actual - and perhaps symbolic? - scuba dive with sharks in the basement aquarium. It's so big that it's retail space loop: by the time you've passed your 3rd QVC, you just *have* to have thing you've seen on TV.
Whereas Gruen tried to lull you into a sense of submission to get you to buy on your way out, Jerde dazzles you so you're so disoriented you have to buy in order to get out.
This rapidly became the new architecture of social change. Everything became a spectacle, from the Jerde-designed Bellagio in Vegas and that giant pirate ship down the Strip, to his other opus, the Universal City Walk in Southern California. Here’s Giandomenico again:
"City Walk is a busy, noisy metropolitan street... The designer’s aim was to create a veritable urban atmosphere, and to provide the experience of a full immersion into metropolitan life without the drawbacks…the main motivating factor is not nostalgia, but …Amplification, bombardment of the senses, entertainment, the means by which City Walk changes the modern flaneur into an addicted consumer. City addict and shopping addict turn out to be one in the same... "
The creator of “experience architecture” took a very contemporary approach to how the individual would identify with the space. Rather than placing him at the centre, the god of the mall, the individual is assumed into the collective - deindividuated, a psychologist like Philip Zimbardo might say. The social identity becomes more important in impulse shopping: who one is as part of the group in this particular situation, in this physical context - the consumer explosion of overstimulation. The Dazzle makes it easy to convince someone to buy. Because, after all, there is a reason for a giant pirate ship, or spectacular dancing fountains. The frenetic entertainment, lights, sound and overwhelm that appears to reign on the Las Vegas strip is there to bamboozle you into thinking that you form a greater part of this consumerist phenomenon that you actually are. When your identity is alleviated by the part atmosphere, you will conform to the cues that surround you. This isn’t an accident; someone is in control in the background, pulling the strings.
"The image of the strip is chaos. The order in this landscape is not obvious. [but] The continuous highway itself and its systems for turning are absolutely consistent. The zone of the highway is a shared order. The zone off the highway is an individual order."
That was from Learning from Las Vegas by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour.
It may be Jerde ideas are a swing-too-far in the other direction. If every time you went out to buy new socks or a copy of News of the World and the environment you were in was trying to keep you off-kilter, you’d be exhausted.
And here’s another thing: the way we act on impulse is actually culturally determined. Researchers Jacqueline Kacen and Julie Lee looked at the influence of culture on consumer impulse buying behaviour in 2002, and found that people in collectivist cultures - Dubai and India specifically in this case - don’t impuse buy as often as people in individualistic cultures - like the US and the UK.
The Western-individualist emphasis on the self, individual needs and desires encourages impulsive buying behaviour. However, Eastern-collectivist notions of the self, which emphasise interdependence, emotional control and moderation, and group needs and desires discourage impulse buying behaviour. Although collectivists possess the buying impulsiveness trait in equal measure with individualists, they suppress this trait impulse and act in a manner that is consistent with cultural norms, in this case, reducing their impulsive buy-ing behaviour, which has been characterised as a highly individualistic, emotionally charged behaviour.
So a pure Jerdian approach doesn’t work for everyone. Yet nowadays, consumers come to things in the digital world - not something that’s hyper-local, that you can drive to. And they come from all over the world. So perhaps we might wish to find a third way.
And one has indeed emerged that combines the two. The solution, however, isn’t shopping malls. What has the parochial safe space of a traditional Main Street, and the tightly-managed confusion of a Jerde space? Disneyland.
Disney have taken their manipulation of the impulse buy one step further than the mall approach because they’ve re-involved the customers in their fictional reality. They have actually asked the question, how do we, Disney, know what they, our customers, want in order to create an environment that adapts its Gruen-ness and its Jerde-ness in real time?
Disney weren’t the first people to ask this. Check this out for insight.
Retail stores are in a position to make a continuous market survey, by simply listening to what people come in to tell them and recording the requests for articles that cannot be supplied. The proper attention to such requests which are, in effect, buying behavior, would not only help to measure the demand for well-known articles, but would provide the best possible indication of consumers' future buying habits in regard to new fashions. The wise procedure is to detect demands as soon as they crystallize, and the simplest method for doing this is to record and watch the wants which customers express.
And that was 1932.
In Disney, they go further even than that - their guests are given wristbands with RFID chips and geo-location sensors that track them from even before they enter the park.
Here’s the very real scenario:
You want to go to Disneyland. You buy your tickets online. You’re also offered a wristband - one of those cute brightly coloured plastic things - that you can personalise and give to your kids ahead of time. It ramps up the excitement, and is linked to your family profiles. Each band belongs to one person with their preferences, their menu choices, their ride times, their special bonus activities. And they all are associated with a credit card. Yours.
The big Disney Day arrives, and rather than deal with a paper or electronic ticket, you’re welcomed at the gate by name and ushered through. You click your band onto the Mickey beacon, and voila, you are part of the Borg.
You glide through rides, you high five characters who seem to know you, asking questions about you. You pick up merch and wave your wristband at the cashier. It feels like you're the only person in the park. This world has been made just for you.
You approach your lunch destination, and before you open the door, it magically opens for you and Princess Belle herself addresses your daughter by name, sits you down, and your food is delivered without uttering an order by Prince Charming himself.
It’s literally magic. Or, really, it’s a cleverly integrated, not at all creepy in the context data mining device that is part of a social contract that monitors you and your family in exchange for an ever-better personalised experience.
This, which you would think would be super-cool, is complicated. Because not everyone likes hyper-personalisation. As with the cultural question about impulse buying, there may be a cultural implication for this kind of tracking. Disneyland Shanghai opened a few weeks ago, and so as we speak, the Disney data scientists are probably finding out the answer to this question. One day, they may publish the results.
The reason the online space is so complex is that unlike a 1950s shopping mall, or a 1980s shopping mall, or a 2016 Disneyland Shanghai, the online world is created not only by content producers, but by its audience as well. The equivalent would be a Disneyland that handed everyone a spanner, along with their magic band, and told them on their way in that they’re free to build their own rides as well.
And this, perhaps, is where we realise we are breaking new ground: that the billions of dollars and commerce and entertainment that have been inspired by Gruen, Jerde and Disney, pale into insignificance with the immeasurable social influences in the online environment.
This has been the n of us.
Image by Lyza.