The Battle of Mall Culture versus Traditional Market Shopping – What do North American Consumers Think?

North America is the home of the mall, and while “destination shopping” remains popular, traditional markets have made a strong comeback over recent years for such diverse reasons as environmentalism, social responsibility, health and wellness and a search for “authenticity.”

Key trends

  • Climate and cars make a sweet combination for malls;
  • Destination shopping and military planning;
  • Surge in the number of farmers’ markets;
  • But growing evidence of oversupply in some regions;
  • North American markets are largely for the affluent;
  • Flea markets and the meaning of life.

Commercial opportunities

  • Malls remain a key part of the North American cultural landscape, offering almost as many opportunities for leisure and recreation as shopping;
  • Farmers’ markets have enjoyed phenomenal growth over recent years, but while some areas are now saturated, others remain underserved;
  • Flea markets appeal to a combination of those seeking bargain-basement prices and one-of-a-kind artisanal authenticity.

Background

Shopping malls are a North American creation. Car-friendly strip malls (also known as shopping plazas or mini malls) date from the 1920s, and fully fledged out-of-town shopping malls date from the post-World War II era of suburban development.

However, the rest of the world has been catching up with North America over recent decades. Indeed, the largest mall in North America (West Edmonton Mall in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, which was built in 1981 and covers an area of 350,000 square meters and boasts 800 stores and 20,000 parking spaces) is now only the fourth largest mall in the world (it was the largest until 2004).

However, market shopping has been making something of a comeback over the past decade or so, as consumers become more interested in such concepts as environmentalism and social responsibility, with farmers’ markets proving particularly popular.

Climate and cars make a sweet combination for malls

Malls have two particularly important things going for them in the North America market. The first is climate: Many regions of North Americas have boiling hot summers and/or freezing cold winters. This makes the climate-controlled environment of a mall extremely attractive to consumers. According to one online forum poster (Hale L. from Hopkins, Minnesota), “there are a better things to do [than go to the mall] in the summer. However, if it’s winter and you have young children, it’s not a bad place to hang out.”

Secondly, levels of car ownership and usage in North America are the highest in the world: The USA and Canada had an average of 1.2 and 1.1 cars per household in 2010, compared with 1.1 in the UK, 1 in Germany, 0.8 in Japan and 0.6 in Russia. As a result, it is easy for most consumers to drive to out-of-town malls.

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Destination shopping and military planning

The largest mall in the USA, Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, is more than a mere shopping centre. When it is busy, it effectively becomes the state’s third-largest city, with consumers flocking to its bars, gyms, theme park and aquarium- it even boasts a wedding chapel. One internet forum poster (Manfred K. from Glen Ellyn, Illinois) gushes that it is “a pretty amazing place… doesn’t look like much from the outside, but the inside has a ton going on. You could easily spend two days here with kids.”

For some, the mall itself can be a venue for exercise. According to one forum poster (Ciara G. from Los Angeles) “Yes, there is really such thing as ‘mall walking.’ I would arrive to work at about 6:30am and there would be tons of people just walking the mall – for exercise.”

For others, mall shopping is a necessary evil that they appear to approach with a mindset akin to a general planning a military campaign. According to one poster (Annie D. from Minneapolis), “I go on weekdays during the day only. I go, at most, four times a year. I park in the same place so that I don’t get lost (this has happened). I take my normal route to two or three stores within two hours, making sure to avert my eyes to any distractions. If I do not succeed in avoiding distraction, I emerge days later, pockets empty.”

Some shopping malls, such as King of Prussia Mall in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, even have trip planners on their websites that can be used by shoppers to plan an itinerary and “make shopping simpler and more pleasurable.”

Some consumers go to malls in spite of themselves. According to one poster (Jessica A. from Phoenix, Arizona), “I hate to admit I actually shop here. My friends would be so disappointed in me.”

Surge in the number of Farmers’ Markets

In spite of the enduring popularity of malls in North American consumer culture, markets have been making a steady comeback, with farmers markets becoming particularly popular over recent years: In 2005, there were nearly 4,100 farmers’ markets in the USA, according to US Department of Agriculture data, and by August 2011, this figure had increased to almost 7,200.

But growing evidence of an oversupply in some regions

However, there is growing evidence of a glut of farmers markets in some parts of the USA. Brigitte Moran, executive director of the Marin Markets in San Rafael, California, says that in San Francisco, there are simply “too many farmers’ markets. We have this mentality of, oh, we have a Starbucks on every corner. So why can’t we have a farmers’ market?”

Markets are largely for the affluent

While it could reasonably be argued that many areas (particularly inner cities) remain undersupplied by farmers’ markets, the reality is that most of these areas lack the purchasing power to support them. Whereas in such emerging markets as Russia and China, affluent consumers flock to malls and their less-well-off counterparts are much more likely to frequent markets, in North America, these roles have now been reversed to an extent, with true bargain hunters more likely to seek out such retail formats as thrift and dollar stores.

Flea markets and the meaning of life

Browsing flea markets has also emerged as a popular leisure activity, particularly with those inclined towards bohemianism (of the bourgeois variety) and hipsterism. Writing in the New York Times during May 2011, Ashley Parker observed that “In a city that thrums with opportunity and a veritable buffet of wonderful things to do… flea markets have somehow emerged as many people’s first choice of a way to spend the weekend.”

She adds that “the markets have become true scenes, places to see, shop and be seen, all while washing down a US$15 lobster roll with some home-brewed hibiscus soda. In the process of picking over other people’s junk, they are telling the world something about themselves.”

According to Michael Prokopow, a history professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design University in Toronto, who teaches a course called “Stuff,” about objects and their significance, “Flea markets proliferate a volume of goods needing to be sold and people who are hungry — emotionally and aesthetically — to sort out the meaning of life. For most people who go on these ritualised scavenger hunts looking for something that they may not know exists, it is a kind of pilgrims’ process through the detritus of the past.”

Eric Demby, one of the founders of the Brooklyn Flea Market, argues that “It’s kind of old-fashioned, and it’s about people interacting in the real world, which I think people crave more and more. The more online we go, the more offline interaction becomes a kind of romantic thing.”

Outlook

Malls and markets are likely to continue to co-exist happily together in North America. The farmers’ market sector is beginning to mature, at least in some regions, and flea markets are likely to continue to proliferate as value-consciousness and the search for “authenticity” remain strong factors animating consumer behaviour, while leisure and recreation are likely to become increasingly important reasons for consumers to visit malls.