• Callie van der Merve


Updated: Jun 14, 2018

Centre of the universe for teenagers

Human Behaviour in Shopping Malls.

If you were a cyborg sent back in time to protect, or kill, a teenager named John Connor, where’s the first place you would look? As the heart and soul of communities and the centre of the universe for teenagers everywhere, the local mall of course. And this is exactly where the Terminator T-1000 finds Connor and attempts to kill him to prevent the future cyborg resistance. Knowing that this might happen, though, another terminator, a T-101 model played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, has been sent to protect him. And so with plenty extras cast to run around screaming like wet monkeys, our movie opening scene is probably not that different from a typical Saturday events arena at a mall today.

Shopping malls, originally conceived of as a kind of community centre where people would gather for shopping, cultural activity, and social interaction, have seen a set of global trends converge at the same time to radically transform the traditional mal into a far more pervasive part of our everyday lives. Pushed in part by the ever increasing growth that online shopping has provided consumers in terms of levels of convenience in always on price comparisons and endless product selection, successful malls have had to embrace technology whilst simultaneously upping their game in moving away from commoditized shopping malls into complete Lifestyle malls where every need and whim of communities are catered for, from shopping, to living and playing. So what do these communities look like. Let’s take a walk


In most cases, the 1st step into the mall starts not in the mall itself, but in the parking area. Whether guided by green and reds lights, pattern or instinct, car parking behaviour is characterised by a seemingly endless looping of the parking lot like a dog turning in circles before lying down. In most cases it takes a bit longer than expected and ends in a mild level of anxiety before finally parking in a spot a little further, lower or higher than desired. Whilst most malls are designed around easy vehicle access, are good for cars, they are not great for people. With moving cars, fumes and noise parking lots are hostile human spaces no matter how beautiful the attempt to paint the walls or columns in bright colours. These stimulae fuelled by an excitement to be in the mall itself causes people to walk towards the mall entrance at a very brisk pace that does not slow down into “mall speed” for at least 15 to 20 meters. Any stores in the face of the mall left and right are therefore mostly missed. Also often overlooked is that shop windows facing the parking lot, especially open air or roof top parking, are mirrors (caused by higher level of external light) more than they are windows to look thru. Whist it can be quite amusing for the shop keeper to watch patrons outside touching up lipstick or adjusting hair and clothing, its certainly less successful in displaying merchandise.

People walk the way they drive

People walk on the same side that they drive on. Thus countries where people drive on the left, tend to walk on the left and vice versa in countries where they drive on the right. So assuming it’s a left driving country like Australia, a mall will be entered mostly on the left with people exiting mostly on the opposite side. So whilst the 1st 2 or 3 stores on both sides may be missed In the process of slowing down to meandering shopping speed, the store on the right of the entrance will be completely invisible. Add into the mix the distraction of cell phones in either talking or texting whilst walking and this “careless walking” and abrupt stopping on a busy mall day could very well see you run over by the pram or trolley behind you. Men, in general, as in real life driving will also seldom ask for directions in a mall, opting instead to follow their intuition or instincts until they suddenly and abruptly give up, blame some innocent external factor like poor signage or layout and abandon their shopping mission altogether for a latté or a beer at the 1st visible coffee shop.

People ignore design that ignores people.

Malls and the brands that occupy them spend billions on design, then overlook the fact that people are hard wired and anatomically built in very specific ways that can not be altered. Apart from all the anatomical specifics like, 2 hands, 90% of people are right handed. People are built to look forward, not sideways and an average human brain can only process 7 bits of visual information at a time. Add into the mix that people watch other people before they watch things, signage screaming out from everywhere and the odd shopping trolley or pram barrelling your way and suddenly stores in malls become invisible even though swarms of people walk past it.

Signage is a failure of design.

Apart from the fact that people read less than ever before, when people are in motion, they hardly ever read. According to Paco Underhill in his book “Why we Buy”, Anything for instance on a front door or entrance is missed. Their mind is in entry mode. Where is the opening and if on the external facade of the mall, does it slide, pull or push? Anything else written on the face of that entrance, is lost. This is why mall layouts need to be very intuitive. Toilets for example need to sit where people would mostly likely look for them. If malls are planned well around this intuitive wiring, mall signage could be at an absolute minimum. In general malls tend to be over signed, especially bad ones.

Women shop, men buy

Again one only needs to look at centuries of hardwiring to understand the difference in shopping behavior between men and woman. For men it’s an act of hunting, and thus an act of speed. Go, find it as quickly as possible and retreat. For woman it is an act of gathering, of sorting, feeling and weighing the best options. Woman therefore spend on average 4 x longer than men in the act of shopping. For men Shopping is a functional activity. For woman it’s more social. Look around next time you are in the mall at the amount of single weary men looking slightly dishevelled as they shift uncomfortably in a piece of mall furniture or coffee shop waiting impatiently on their spouse or partner.

Places are busy because they are busy

The heard effect of people to follow others in activity that seems to be popular is a natural social behaviour also referred to as “swarm intelligence” (that is, how ants, bees or any social animal, including humans, behave in a crowd) and is a strong influencer on how people move, stop, look and potentially enter a store. If a place is seen to be popular, other shoppers are likely to choose it too. And because people watch people before they watch things, places will be busy because they are busy. People ignite people. Getting just a few people therefore to notice your store is of vital importance. Restaurants are particularly sensitive to this behaviour. When confronted with 2 adjacent but empty restaurants of equal offering, to choose from a couple may choose 1 at random. Because of their choice, others will assume that the one with customers are the better choice and then choose it too and soon that snowball effect can cause 1 restaurant to be very busy whilst another is quite for no specific intrinsic reason.

Saying hello All People like to be recognized. A simple “hello” a few seconds after someone enters a store, makes people feel noticed and important and thus more likely to dwell longer. Adding “How may I help you?” however is a gamble. It can go either way. The most likely response is “ I am just browsing” Interestingly enough also according to Paco Underhill in his book “Why we Buy” that same act of greeting someone is also a very big deterrent in theft. Ones a prospective shoplifter has been noticed. He or she is very unlikely to take anything from the store.


People leave the way they arrived, in a hurry. They seldom leave the mall earlier than planned. In fact the opposite is more likely. Known as the Gruen effect or the Gruen transfer, people mostly leave malls with more things than they came for and later than they planned. People thus tend to speed up towards the exit again missing the last set of stores completely. With spatial memory impaired by all the distractions, including the habitual use of smartphones whilst walking, this journey is often also characterised by some detours before the car is finally located. With so much time now seemingly waste and mutterings to oneself about taking more care next time around, one can be forgiven for secretly wishing that the time the travel technology of The Terminator series was an actual reality.

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