What’s so bad about regional malls?

Waterfront City, Docklands, Melbourne - one of the newer breed of "topless" malls.

I’m always a little surprised by the ill-feeling many planners, architects and educated elites show toward regional managed shopping centres (a.k.a malls). The alternative isn’t always articulated but in most cases seems to be some notion of the traditional strip shopping centre, or ‘High Street’**.

The vast majority of Australians – the 90% plus who live in the suburbs – have pretty clearly voted with their feet for shopping in malls (see herehere, here, here and here). That seems like a rational and inevitable response to the prevailing cost of travel and, relative to strip centres, the considerable advantages of regional malls for a population that’s overwhelmingly car-based. The key advantages are:

One, malls provide complementary shopping – shoppers can buy a diverse range of goods and services from different retailers at a single destination. On one trip, a customer can buy electronics, clothes, furniture, kitchen gadgets, get a haircut, and more.

Two, they provide comparison shopping – buyers can compare the prices of similar products (say shoes) at multiple retailers within the same destination.

Three, economies of scale at the level of the store and the franchise network provide purchasers with lower prices and wider product choice than they could ever hope to get on the High Street.

Four, most regional malls offer a climate-controlled shopping experience irrespective of whether it’s hot, cold or raining outdoors (although enclosure might possibly be of declining importance – newer malls like Waterfront City at Docklands are largely open-air with car-free pedestrian “streets”).

Five, they’re safe. There are no cars within malls, so parents of small children don’t have to worry about road safety. In most, there’s a permanent security guard and centre management presence. Most don’t have pubs or licensed restaurants so there’re fewer drunks.

Six, malls are very sociable. They have indoor ‘streets’ and large food courts. They have cinemas and play areas for small children. They’re meeting places that offer plenty of “buzz” for little cost. Few traditional strip shopping centres have a direct equivalent to the food court because they’re not centrally managed.

Seven, they’re equitable. Prices are competitive – that’s one reason those on average to low incomes like them. Maybe they also like the fact their “relative poverty” isn’t highlighted by the sorts of expensive restaurants and designer shops often found in fashionable strip shopping centres.

Of course there’s no such thing as a perfect solution and malls also have downsides. The most common criticisms I hear are as follows:

One, malls are dull and franchising means “they’re all the same” no matter where you are in Australia. Personally, I don’t find regional malls particularly appealing (although some are better than others), but there’s no getting away from the fact that most people, on balance, prefer them to the High Street. Either it’s a price most people are prepared to pay for the benefits, or most simply don’t see many other malls, or more likely there’re many, many people who actually don’t find them dull.

Two, they turn their back on the street. This criticism misses the essential point of malls – they have their streets within the building and these indoor promenades are often safer, quieter and more congenial that outside streets. Shops blend with the ‘street’ – mall designers have understood the importance of “activation” since the days of Victor Gruen.

It’s true that malls often have blank, windowless facades and are separated from the street network by parking, but this is true of many suburban building types. Suburban universities, schools, hospitals and sports stadia, for example, are commonly set well back from the street and only occasionally directly ‘address’ it. This is a wider urban design issue and there are ways to handle it – it’s by no means peculiar to malls.

Three, malls are blatantly commercial – they’re designed around getting people “to buy”. That’s probably true, but almost every proposal I see to “activate” civic spaces is based on uses like cafes and bars that are, well, commercial operations. Remove the commercial operators from Southbank and see how much life is left. Strip shopping centres too, are places of commerce. Read the rest of this entry »


Are neighbourhood bookshops doomed?

Relative prices of selected magazines in hardcopy (1st col) vs electronic delivery in the US (2nd col) and Australia (3rd col). Chart by Kwanghui-Lim

There’s a small, independent literary bookshop in my local shopping centre whose days, I fear, are numbered. I can’t see how it will survive the online challenge. Its likely demise will make the shopping centre even more monocultural. This isn’t a big shop like Readings in Carlton, so its scope to live on by “adding value” for customers is limited.

Some people really love their local bookshops. In Friday’s Crikey, Ben Eltham said “many independent bookshops offer…..character, passion and charm”. What they provide, he says, is:

An induction into a vast and exciting secret society, populated by beautiful physical objects containing wisdom, and knowledge, and love.

Not sure I like the “secret society” bit, but as a keen reader I understand the delights of browsing, even though I don’t make a lot of use of my local bookshop. Although Readings is further away, I’m much more likely to browse there because I can combine it with a visit to the movies and dinner. Readings is also bigger with a larger range of specialised books.

However the key reason I don’t spend a lot of time in the local store is because, like most people, I’m actually far more interested in reading than I am in the act of buying. The fact is the internet offers me a vastly superior buying/browsing experience and thereby gives me more time to get down to reading.

It goes without saying that I can get books much cheaper online than I can over the local counter. There’s no way even the big chains are competitive on price with Amazon-Book Depository, so my local indie has no chance. And there’s no way any bricks and mortar bookshop in Australia can compete on stock against the online behemoths, especially when it comes to technical books or out of print volumes. A smaller bookshop can’t afford to carry all the works of even popular literary authors. Its big advantage is immediate over-the-counter delivery, but that only works if it has stock.

Then there’s information. Although I hear a lot of talk about the expertise of dedicated bookshop staff, there’s no way they can have the sort of product knowledge that’s just a click away at Amazon. Maybe bookshops run by owner-managers that specialise in arcane topics do, but chances are it’ll be something I’m not interested in. My local is a more general, literary-oriented bookshop.

Somewhere like Amazon gives you instant reviews from literary sources and other readers across the world. Amazon even tailors recommendations for new books based on your search topics and previous purchases. Even on those occasions when I do buy a book from my local (usually a gift so new releases are preferred) I’ve already done my research and know what I’m after.

If I want a novel in a hurry I’ll go to my local bookstore, but unless it’s reasonably popular or new, chances are the proprietor won’t have it in inventory. I can either get the store to order it in or do it myself at substantially lower cost (as well as avoid another trip to the store). In fact these days I’m much more likely to get an electronic copy instantly and read it on my (Kobo) e-reader. A growing proportion of Australians are doing likewise.

Some argue that if we don’t patronise our local bookshops they won’t be there when we need them. They usually turn out to be people who are in the publishing and media business, like Ben Eltham or this writer. The “use it or lose it” argument is of course rubbish – no commercial operation is likely to survive, much less flourish, on this sort of shaky business model. It would be nice to have a local bookshop but it will hardly be the end of civilisation if mine disappears – I’ve got too many other options. Read the rest of this entry »


Why is Gen Y driving less?

After growing consistently for many decades, car use is falling in developed countries (e.g. USA, Australia, Britain). A notable aspect of this decline is the fall-off in driving by young people.

New data from the US Federal Highway Administration (see here and here) shows that although they increased their share of the US population slightly over the period, those aged 21-30 accounted for only 14% of all miles driven in 2009, compared to 21% in 1995. Another study reports that in 2008 only 49% of 17 years olds had driver’s licenses compared to 75% in 1978.

There is now a sharp difference between Gen Y and baby boomers. A typical 58 year old in the US last year drove 11,607 miles, while the average 28 year old drove just 7,011 miles.

Neither the GFC nor the recent escalation of petrol prices fully account for these changes because the decline in driving preceded these events. So what is driving Gen Y to abandon what has traditionally been one of the great rewards of coming-of-age?

The explanation usually advanced is that the internet has enabled electronic communication to substitute for face-to-face contact. As I’ve pointed out before, however, reputable researchers conclude the exact opposite – electronic communication increases the demand for face-to-face contact more than it substitutes for it. Read the rest of this entry »


Is the online version of The Age still a paper?

I value having The Age delivered to my door each morning, but I’m disappointed with the online version, theage.com.au. I refer to it often, but my experience with the site suggests I’d have to think long and hard before I’d be prepared to pay to access it online.

Charging is of course Fairfax’s ultimate goal (the online version of The Financial Review, which is also Fairfax owned, is pay for use) and seen as a way of making up for the declining popularity of newspapers – sales of the Monday to Friday edition of The Age fell 4% in the March Quarter, 2010. Sales of the Saturday edition fell 5%.

Those video advertisements that automatically start when you click on the site are a real turn-off but I have some sympathy for Fairfax’s search for a financially viable online model (although since I pay for the hard copy, why should I have to endure such intrusive advertising?). No, my disappointment relates to management issues.

A key reason for my dissatisfaction is basic – it’s hard to find stuff on the site. I imagine that many people want to track down an article they recall seeing in yesterday’s paper or last week’s, yet you can’t search by date of publication. You have to know the title or author. That seems like a terribly basic omission to me. Why can’t I look up a simple table of contents for each day, showing the name and author of articles with the ability to jump straight to what I want? Read the rest of this entry »