sealPurdue News

November 1996

Large malls make shoppers feel small, survey finds

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Large shopping malls are in danger of losing their appeal for consumers, a Purdue University retail expert says.

According to a national survey by Purdue's Retail Institute, shoppers say malls are too crowded, too confusing, too dangerous, too homogeneous and too blah.

"It's really a paradox," says Richard A. Feinberg, director of the institute and head of Purdue's Department of Consumer Sciences and Retailing. "Even though they are among hundreds of people, consumers feel alienated by the atmosphere, the poor service and the lack of satisfaction in malls."

From a representative sample of nationwide consumers, Feinberg identified several negative perceptions consumers have of malls.

"The No. 1 complaint was that malls are too crowded," Feinberg says. "Many consumers are starting to look for alternative places to shop -- places where they don't have to fight through mobs of people just to get into a store."

Poor traffic patterns and not enough parking spaces were the second biggest concern. "Driving in a mall parking lot can be like driving in a stock car race," Feinberg says. "Poor lighting, having to park far away and having to pay to park all cause shoppers to become 'drive-through' consumers -- they drive on through without stopping."

Consumers also expressed concern that malls are becoming hangouts for gangs, and that there's not enough security.

"Malls sometimes replace existing recreational areas for teen-agers," Feinberg says. "Eventually, the mall becomes the popular meeting place for bored kids."

Once consumers find a parking place and actually get inside the mall, the confusion is just beginning, Feinberg says.

"Most malls are so large, consumers feel like rats caught in a maze of aisles, hallways and stores," he says. "Malls are like mini-cities -- you need a map to find your way from one end to the other. Consumers also say poor lighting, loud music and strong smells overload their senses and contribute to the confusion."

Feinberg says a bad experience in one store can be detrimental to every retailer in the mall, because customers feel like they'll receive the same treatment no matter where they shop in the mall. "So, if you're a retailer, you should be very concerned about how your competitors are treating their customers," he says.

Feinberg suggests mall management create a "satisfaction SWAT team" to monitor customer satisfaction in each store. As problem stores are identified, the team can recommend procedures to correct the situation.

"That might mean retraining sales people, or in the most drastic cases, firing individuals who simply will not put the customer first," he says. "Individual retailers need to do their part by re-evaluating store procedures and policies, and looking at how they relate to customer satisfaction.

"For example, we've all had to stand around for what seemed like hours waiting for a salesperson. A good rule of thumb is 'it's better to have too much help than not enough.' You can always send someone home if you're not busy, but it's very difficult to find employees willing to come in at the last minute if you're understaffed."

Consumers also reported that merchandise in malls is too expensive, there are too few choices and retailers don't have the merchandise the consumer came for.

"Customers are especially frustrated when they go to a mall retailer with an item in mind, only to find the merchandise is out of stock," Feinberg says. "Instead of suggesting an alternative, retailers send the customer away empty handed. The next time the consumer thinks about shopping, the mall may not be their No. 1 choice."

Unfortunately, top-dollar real estate keeps prices high and choice low, Feinberg says.

"Overhead for malls is large, and not all stores pay the same rent per square foot," he says. "A mall needs large anchor tenants and will give them a rent break in order to attract and keep them. So, smaller specialty stores often pay more per square foot than the large department stores. Consequently, what you get is large nationwide chains that all carry virtually the same merchandise."

Feinberg says size is a mall's worst enemy.

"Malls are like battleships," he says. "They are big and strong, but they can't turn quickly. Today's consumer is fast and changing constantly, and the battleship is losing the battle to smaller, quicker retailers who can adapt to the consumer."

Many consumers are dissatisfied with malls for the same reasons consumers began to move away from downtown areas 20 years ago, Feinberg adds.

"In a sense, downtowns were large malls," he says. "People began to have many of the same complaints -- too crowded, not enough parking, too expensive. Before long, many downtown areas turned into virtual ghost towns. If malls don't find a way to satisfy their customers, they could suffer the same fate."


Source: Richard A. Feinberg, (765) 497-0332; e-mail,
Writer: Victor B. Herr, (765) 494-2077; e-mail,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

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