Malls are emblematic of our consumerist culture. They live or die with the economy.
Dubai international airport reported that in 2013, passenger traffic was 66 million, an increase of 15 per cent over the previous year.
I know where they all went: to the Dubai Mall, which saw 75 million visitors that year, again a 15 per cent increase over the previous year.
It seemed to me, when I was visiting, that all of them were there at one time in that place. But then, the airport can itself be easily mistaken for a mall.
The popular phrase, “if you build it, they will come” is proven at the Dubai mall. It not only houses over 1,200 retail outlets of every kind, but also an aquarium, an ice rink and movie theaters. There is a skywalk that connects the mall to the nearby metro station, with convenient moving walk-ways.
Of course, as you walk along the skywalk, you also get to see the imposing Burj Khalifa, the 160-storey building alongside, which means that another item can be checked off the tourist’s ‘must see’ list.
Over 40 per cent of visitors to the mall are estimated to be tourists, that is, they come to see the mall as a sight-seeing spot. Of course, this does not mean they don’t intend to shop once they are there.
The Dubai Mall has places allocated for prayer, but one wonders if the mall itself is the prayer house of our times given that we worship consumerism.
Economies are down because demand needs to be stimulated. Money is not the problem for you can get credit for the flimsiest of reasons. If you are not carrying a credit card, chain stores in US malls issue a store credit card which will entitle you to an additional 10 per cent discount.
Anything, as long as you buy.
The mall culture is the epitome of the consumerism that drives our economies. With convenient parking and often good access to public transport, malls are no longer just places to shop in but tourist destinations in themselves. It is the same pitch casino companies provide when seeking permission from towns in the US — that they are not gambling places but entertainment destinations.
Malls can die as the economy twists and turns. Changing demographics and economic base lead to shops moving out.
Then, lower rents attract a different clientele. One ‘dead mall’ (as it was locally known) in northeast US became the venue of a mini indoor golf course and paint-ball shooting arena, bringing in youngsters again, looking for a place to spend their time.
Malls have gradually got integrated into our lives beyond the goods they provide.
Many malls in America open an hour or so early to allow the elderly to use their corridors as walking paths in a climate controlled environment. I wonder when malls will start seeking subsidies claiming they are a public resource.
The mall may also be a blessing in other ways.
If you are against the glitz of commercial neon signs on every street in town that is subject to an invasion by a shop, what better way than for a community to banish all shopping to an enclosed building away from residential areas where the weak can drown in their own indulgence. Long live the mall!
This article was originally published in The Hindu, Business Line