My family is unusual. We love to go to the mall, but we rarely buy anything. While I don’t recommend this form of recreation for a compulsive spender, those who have strong self-control (or who simply don’t want many of the things for sale) will find quite a few free ways to pass the time at the mall.
First, there is mall walking. When my husband worked retail, he enjoyed walking through the mall when the stores were just starting to open, and he observed many mall walkers – mostly senior citizens – both exercising and socializing. (Our local mall even has a formal mall walkers’ association that sponsors day trips to local cities and similar events.) He decided that when he retired, he wanted to become a mall walker. With current trends emphasizing big-box stores over malls, I doubt malls will still be around when we retire, but we can enjoy mall walking now if we go later in the day when the stores are already open.
People watching goes hand in hand with mall walking. Whether observing the latest fashions, the way people interact with each other, or the way others shop, mall-goers can find endless amusement by observing their fellow human beings. Malls seem to attract a diverse group of people – Goth teens surrounding the Dance Dance Revolution game at the arcade, mothers and grandmothers pushing strollers, upwardly mobile career women browsing department stores, and everyone in between.
I once read an essay (I believe it was by Ray Bradbury) about malls filling the social role that downtowns once held. People can go to a mall to people watch, catch up with friends, or meet new people. Although malls seem to be declining in popularity, we can still use them for socializing in any kind of weather. At our local mall, a dozen or so retired men gather every day at the same spot, just to shoot the breeze. Malls are also an interesting place to strike up a conversation with fellow shoppers who happen to stop to rest at the same bench where you’re sitting.
Malls offer a great opportunity to get public opinion. I haven’t seen it done recently, but companies used to send staff with clipboards to malls to conduct formal surveys. Those who are interested in finding out what “the average Joe” thinks can usually find men waiting for wives and girlfriends, teenagers in the food court, or casual browsers who are willing to chat.
Investors can do some informal stock research. Which stores seem the busiest? Are people actually leaving with purchases or are they just browsing there and buying elsewhere? What store’s bags seem the most common? When you observe a pattern, do some more research at home. You might catch a hot stock on its way up.
On the other hand, anyone interested in marketing or merchandising can learn a lot at the mall. What strategies are retailers using to separate you from your money? Take notice of new displays, new offers, and new sales approaches. If you know the strategy of “the enemy” (the people trying to separate you from your money), you can prepare a better defense.
Some promotions provide more than educational value. Take advantage of free samples, such as those front-door testers at Bath and Body Works, and promotional drawings. Our local mall even offers periodic Customer Appreciation Days, at which they give away $100 gift certificates every hour. Such promotions bring more business to the mall, but they benefit shoppers, too.
Don’t forget kids’ events. Our mall even has a kids’ club for which we receive quarterly newsletters advertising events. We recently took our children trick-or-treating at the mall; in a few months they may sit on Santa’s lap or write him a letter. The same mall also works with the local library to offer some Summer Reading Club events and Reading Rainbow, holds free events sponsored by specific stores (pretzel-making at Auntie Anne’s, movies at Regal Cinema, etc.), and offers coloring contests and scavenger hunts.
If none of these activities interest you or if you have a big group you need to entertain, consider creating your own scavenger hunt. As a teen, I loved it when my Girl Scout troop or youth group took us to the mall (45 minutes away) for a scavenger hunt. Whether counting the number of stores with mannequins in the window or hunting down the price of an extra-large jock strap in the sporting goods store, my friends and I had a great time trying to beat the opposing team to the meeting place with all the right answers.
I hate the thought of malls disappearing from our culture. Yes, they have contributed to decreasing the individual flavor of our nation’s regions, homogenizing our personal styles, teaching us to focus on instant gratification, and increasing our spending, but they also offer some social and recreational aspects that big box stores seem to lack. Why not take an outing to your local mall one night and rediscover all it has to offer?
Image courtesy of Stuck in Customs