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Of malls and markets

Shopping malls have shed their negative image of an alien presence in city centres. By combining consumption and social interaction, they offer an interesting approach to counter online competition. Bargains aren’t the only things to hunt here.

By Isabell Spilker

“Shopping malls are the new suburban churches.” 
Katja Eichinger, artist und journalist

“Shopping malls are the new suburban churches,” believes Katja Eichinger. The artist, journalist and widow of director Bernd Eichinger has a passion for shopping centres. “There’s no pressure and no hurry, the escalator sets a leisurely pace.” She’s interested in something which most people fail to notice – the way malls work as places not just for buying and selling, but also as a sort of social meeting point. European shopping centres often fulfil this role, as Lukas Nemela confirms. He is spokesperson for ECE, the European market leader, which manages 199 shopping centres. “What we want from a shopping mall has changed. In the past, buying and selling were paramount. Nowadays these are modern marketplaces, which provide much more than mere consumption.”

In Germany, there are over 479 shopping centres of over 10,000 sqm. In each of these is a clever mix of retail, catering, entertainment and occasionally also outlets for local essentials. Increasingly, shopping centres also include spaces for brands: they aim to have a presence but don’t prioritise making sales. Nemela explains “We even have Tesla as a tenant in our shopping centres now, but they never sell cars on the spot, to drive away in.” Instead, the shopping centre is a place for car dealers to get closer to customers and their lives.

Hillary the Hawk

Avian pest control

There are few quests as hopeless as banishing pigeons from inner-city areas. Many measures have been tried, such as spikes on perches, poison and ultrasound – none of them sustainable and several highly questionable. Yet one tactic tried in Munich for some time now has proven both effective and acceptable. A Harris hawk called Hillary keeps order in the Stachus shopping centre and the Hofstatt arcades. The shopping centre managers engaged the services of a falconer, whose hawk has marked these areas as its territory. From time to time, Hillary the hawk arrives to show the pigeons who’s boss. Hillary is a natural predator for pigeons – she makes poison, electric fences and spikes redundant. She’s also much more effective: in the wild, birds of prey feed mainly on pigeons – and the pigeons know this. The falconer brings his hawk to the site, as often as possible to begin with, and later only infrequently. As soon as a pigeon finds its way into the shopping areas in search of the usual crumbs, Hillary chases it out. It takes a little while for the pigeons to get the message, but using the hawk this way is a promising approach – and quite a sight for shoppers to behold. Hillary’s handler rewards her with pieces of meat, so the pigeons remain unharmed. They simply learn to find a more peaceful place to feed in future.

Happiness is losing yourself

For Katja Eichinger, who writes in the exhibition catalogue ‘World of Malls’ about these fascinating and alienating places, visitors can lose themselves in a shopping mall. “Malls allow close social interaction without confrontation.” Shopping centres become places to escape from reality, snack, stroll and browse. We eat an ice cream here, try a perfume there. The children go on the carousel, play in the water feature, buy new clothes and round it off with ice skating. “Customers’ expectations have really shifted. They expect a pleasant atmosphere, with benches and lounges, good facilities, clean toilets and even electric car charging points,” Nemela adds.

Indeed, even the first shopping centre was based on the idea of combining commercial and social functions. Victor Gruen designed the ‘Southdale Center’ near Minneapolis, which opened in 1956 and is seen as the mother of all malls. From the outside, it looks like a bunker; from the inside it’s a perfectly lit atrium with plants, benches and fountains. Yet although the image of shopping malls in the States was never very bad, in northern Europe spending your days in malls was often frowned upon. It was seen as admitting defeat, giving in to the constant stream of soft-serve ice cream, artificial fountains and streams of shoppers.

If a mall sees no investment for too long, there’s a risk of a downward spiral. 
Lukas Nemela, spokesperson for ECE

United against online competition

There has long been criticism of malls: “Shopping centres are destroying town centres, bringing small retailers to their knees, making the shopping experience bland and flat.” Yet today these objections no longer seem so serious in the face of major competition from the internet. New partnerships have formed between high-street retailers and shopping malls. Nemela confirms this phenomenon: “The whole debate about shopping centres competing with town centres is outdated”. In the USA, there are now growing fears that malls will die out since so many shops are folding due to strong online competition. This is changing perceptions among shoppers, municipal administrations and retailers. The fight is no longer against shopping malls, but against the customer’s desire to order goods from a comfy seat on their sofa.

Retailers are now calling for cooperation and a focus on bringing the benefits of shopping centres into small towns, suburbs, local shops and even city centres. Bricks-and-mortar retail can entice customers with something no online shop can offer – social interaction, conversation and face-to-face encounters. Nemela explains: “In a situation where there is competition, we need to come together and focus on our strengths, so we can work through it.”

Architecture of consumption

World of Malls


This exhibition is accompanied by a book of the same name, showcasing shopping malls from around the world. It presents excellent and noteworthy projects, either already established or still being planned. Accompanying these are historical, architectural and social reflections on shopping centres.

Available here

Rebirth through refurb

If shopping centres are to stay afloat in the current climate, their operators must work tirelessly on keeping their offerings and external appearance up to date. One mall, the ‘Hamburger Meile’, almost came to a sad end. This enormous block in the Hamburg district of Barmbeck had an unappealing mix of shops and boring interior architecture: it no longer attracted many visitors. There are few retail outlets in the surrounding area, so the whole district suffered from this retail giant’s decline. When yet another major department store, one of the centre’s main tenants, shut up shop, a deathly atmosphere took hold. The first step towards its resurgence was a bold refurbishment to add a fresh touch to the ailing centre. This paid off, and the Hamburger Meile is once again drawing footfall to the whole district.

“If a mall sees no investment for too long, there’s a risk of a downward spiral”, Nemela explains. “It must continue to cover a range of sectors and house a mixture of chain outlets and regional retailers.” The shopping centre concept needs to adapt constantly, with more opportunities to eat and drink. Previously restaurants, fast food outlets and ice cream parlours made up some five percent of the floor area in shopping centres, but new centres now devote ten percent of their space or more to eateries.

With 14,875 pedestrians an hour, the Frankfurt Zeil is the busiest shopping street in Germany.
Source: JLL, 2017

Katja Eichinger sees opportunities in the fact that bricks-and-mortar retail, and therefore also malls, need to change and restructure due to changed consumer behaviour: “Shopping centres are no longer merely a manifestation of our shopping requirements, but also express people’s need for somewhere to reach out and catch us when we fall, guide us when we feel lost and keep us close when we feel lonely.” She believes the fact so many people still seek out shopping centres means these needs are not being fulfilled elsewhere. Shopping centres should therefore see themselves as institutions in society and need to reflect on themselves and their social responsibility.


100 % inspiration


In the Village in Hall 11.0, ten well-known, design-oriented companies describe their ideas for the retail trade and how they skillfully present products at point of sale. Make sure you drop by and see what’s going on!


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