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Do malls make you shop more?

It's the way they're built.

Familiar principles unite malls around the world

Malls. We spend hours of our lives in them: hanging out as teenagers by the Maccy Ds; trawling round with friends on mass shopping trips; frantically racing round in mid-December to find last-minute Christmas presents. Malls are still opening and expanding, even though high streets are facing difficulties: Trinity Leeds opened last year; Westfield London has just been granted permission for an extension. They’re often, from the outside, boxy mixtures of concrete and glass and most wouldn’t win any design awards (though Liverpool One was shortlisted for the Stirling prize, architecture’s biggest award, in 2009). But why are we so happy to spend whole days within their walls?

“One of the reasons malls do so well is because they’re a completely controlled environment – they’re enclosed, safe and comfortable on a rainy or hot day – but it’s also because there’s a lot of effort gone in to make sure customers are engaged,” says Jacqueline Beckingham, director at architecture practice Benoy and specialist in shopping mall design. “There are known rules about creating a large centre, about effective layouts so people will stay all day. They’re not just about shopping – for instance, mall design will include plenty of comfy seating around the centre so people are totally encouraged to spend time there, read a newspaper, have a drink.”

It turns out racing around the shops is what we’re meant to do.

The food court is now a given. “Usually around 20-25% of space is given over to eating in a mall – we’d plot in a space for fast food, where teenagers are likely to hang out, but also a larger area with a nicer, more restaurant-like ambience where people might go for dinner.” And there are plenty of other extras to keep you hooked, day and night. “Cinemas are given a great frontage, usually large and impressive and often there’ll be clusters of leisure activities.”

Clearly, one of the most important things, from the perspective of the mall owners, is that shoppers actually shop. And as the architect, this means making sure people can move around easily. “When we get a brief we know what our ‘anchors’ will be. These are the big department stores or leisure facilities on the extremes of the centre. Shoppers walk through the mall to be rewarded by these destinations and they’ll enter through one from the transport connection or the street,” explains Beckingham. And it turns out racing around the shops is what we’re meant to be doing. Sort of. “A common design is what we call a racetrack mall – making sure people know where they’ve been and where they’re going. Some people have a great internal compass, but for those who don’t we create visual signage – if there are multiple levels, people need to be able to look up and see the shops, and we use different colour schemes and materials so you can recollect where you’ve been.” So that Hollister frontage that you always spot because it looks like a nightclub is doing its job. And if you’re getting lost, “that’s bad design,” says Beckingham.

Do malls make you shop more?