Close your eyes and you could be in any mall, anywhere. At each end is an overstuffed department store with roving fragrance spritzers and makeup artists. In between are children’s stores showing pink clothes on the left, blue on the right, interspersed with teen clothing stores where the lighting is dim and the salespeople are rail-thin. Throw in numerous shoe stores and another version of The Limited or The Gap. Hungry? Don’t fret: Somewhere in this mall are warm cinnamon buns.

That’s the problem. According to new Wharton research, consumers are aggravated and uninspired by the sameness and predictability of shopping malls, which for decades epitomized America’s consumer society. It’s not exactly the news mall developers want to hear, given the already difficult holiday retail environment.

In their fifth annual survey of consumer dissatisfaction, Wharton’s Jay H. Baker Retailing Initiative and The Verde Group, a research consultancy specializing in customer retention, found that 80% of shoppers had at least one problem during a trip to the mall in the prior month. Earlier Wharton dissatisfaction surveys concludedthat fewer shoppers (50%) found fault with individual stores — an indication that the mall environment these days has become even less appealing.

The two most frequent complaints cited in the survey are first, a lack of anything new or exciting at the mall and second, a limited selection of restaurants. These criticisms were each cited by 35% of those surveyed. The third most-mentioned problem, cited by 28% of respondents, was that too many of the stores carry the same merchandise. Parking was the fourth most frequently mentioned problem, with 25% of shoppers experiencing trouble in mall parking lots. While mentioned less frequently than sameness as a problem, survey respondents told researchers they feel parking is the most serious problem they face on a visit to the mall.

“If the mall is boring and the infrastructure is not that great, it’s easy to see why people are stepping back and skipping the holiday buying frenzy” that is normal for this time of year, says Wharton marketing professor Stephen Hoch, who is director of the retail initiative. “Clearly people are spending less time shopping aimlessly. I think this is a long-term trend. People are still shopping and spending but they do it less often and it has to be more purposeful.”  

According to Hoch, generations ofshoppers have grown up exploring malls, which were once modern wonders with fountains, food courts and kiddie rides. “People have had a lot of experience in malls. It’s not that there are no new elements in them, but that people have higher expectations,” says Hoch. “The same set of usual suspects is in every mall. In the biggest malls, it’s the same stores you have seen a zillion times, just more of them.”

Today’s mall shoppers are underwhelmed by the nation’s 1,200 enclosed and open-air lifestyle centers filled with chain stores designed specifically for success in the mall environment. “People go to the mall and nothing stands out or makes the experience fun or exciting,” Hoch adds. “There is no sense of discovery. Nothing catches the eye. It’s the same restaurants and the same stores in every mall.”

Hoch predicts as much as 10% of the nation’s retail infrastructure could disappear by the time the current recession ends.He also suggests that the dissatisfactionsurvey’s results canhelp guide mall owners who are interested in repurposing space that will be abandoned in a pending retail shakeout. Owners “need to think hard and ask if there is something else they can add that creates an element of novelty. Is there a way to mix it up?”

The Baker Retail Initiative and Verde Group Researchers surveyed 900 customers in October and November. They found that the typical shopper will visit five stores on an average trip to the mall and travel 23 miles to get there. A third of the shoppers surveyed spend two to three hours in the mall, and 90% make at least one purchase, with the majority spending an average of $150. Apparel is the top sales category at malls, although open-air malls have a greater emphasis on electronics and home goods compared to enclosed centers.

Hangouts for Teenagers

Beyond complaints about the ho-hum nature of mall shopping, consumers also find problems in three areas of basic mall infrastructure that drive loyalty:

  • Comfort: Is the mall clean and well maintained, with easy-to-find washrooms and visible security?
  • Accessibility: Is it easy to find convenient parking spots?
  • Navigation: Is it easy to find the mall and understand its layout, and is there adequate signage?

Paula Courtney, chief executive of The Verde Group, which has offices in Toronto and Atlanta, says the survey also tracked problems that were most likely to prompt negative word-of-mouth about a shopping mall. Earlier customer dissatisfaction surveys show that when people have a problem, they tend to talk about it with three other people. As a result, half the people who hear about a negative incident experienced by someone else at a store will avoid that retailer. In the latest survey, teenage loitering was cited as the problem shoppers were most likely to complain about to others, setting off a chain of bad-mouthing about a mall.

While 80% of all shoppers experience a problem at the mall, that figure rises to 97% for shoppers aged 18 to 24. Courtney says the high number of complaints is probably because they spend more time than other age groups at the mall, giving them more time to experience trouble. Those in the 25 to 40 age range are the top-spenders, dropping $188 on average. Their biggest complaint is a lack of restaurants. Shoppers over 60 complained most about being unable to find signs directing them around the mall.

The researchers examined the relationship between the amount of time spent in the mall and customer satisfaction. They found that those who spend more than two hours in a mall are more loyal, visit the most stores, report a better shopping experience and spend more money. At the same time, longer shopping trips apparently lead to more opportunity for problems, such as complaints about crowds and teenagers.

New visitors represent opportunity for malls. The survey shows they travel greater distances to shop, visit more stores and spend more, on average, than other shoppers. The problems they experience are related to finding their way to and around the mall, which is not a problem they are likely to complain about to others. Frequent visitors to the mall tend to live closer and are more satisfied with their experience than other shoppers, according to the survey.

The survey, which was heavily weighted toward women by a factor of 2 to 1, reflects gender differences among shoppers. Men say they experience more problems than women, have more trouble parking and finding their way around the mall, and are more turned off by the sameness of malls than women. But while men have more problems, women are more likely to tell others about it. Working women were more dissatisfied than other women with malls, complaining about a poor selection of restaurants, and a lack of interesting shops and special events.

According to Courtney, the survey results should offer mall owners some clear and simple solutions to shoppers’ complaints. “The message to developers is that there is hope,” she says. “A lot of these issues are actionable. There are many ways developers can draw shoppers into their malls.”

A first step would be to evaluate the mall’s common areas. Mall owners can use the space they control to develop programs to counteract the sameness of the stores and merchandise that is turning off mall shoppers. For example, survey results show that shoppers were disappointed in the level of malls’ sensitivity to environmental or green causes.Therefore, malls should initiate more community-based events taking into account each center’s own demographic footprint. They should understand that different types of consumers come to the shopping experience with varied expectations and different triggers that will generate mall loyalty.Improving signage is an easy and inexpensive fix that would respond to a frequent complaint that surfaced in the Wharton research.

“Consumers don’t have money, but developers probably don’t either,” says Courtney. “So instead of trying to make broad sweeping changes, they should focus on low-hanging fruit, such as signage. Creating opportunities for discovery in the common areas and thinking of the mall as a destination will encourage shoppers to stay at the mall longer.”  

One innovative use of common areas she cites is a partnership between mall owners and Coca-Cola known as the Red Lounge. It is a section of the mall with red seating where Coke products are sold and teenagers are encouraged to gather. The lounge generates sales and brand awareness for Coke, while containing teens in a designated spot, thereby reducing the opportunities for them to annoy other shoppers.

Verde research in Atlanta revealed some other ideas. Shoppers suggested that stores put individual numbers on their doors coordinating to the mall’s map. They also asked for more sit-down restaurants rather than food courts, better lighting and more trees in the parking lots. Valet service should be free with a purchase, and valets should be made to park at the far edges of the parking lot to free up spots closer to the mall for other shoppers. They also suggested that malls create more environmental, educational and entertainment programming.

But because there has been a massive investment in malls and in the chain stores that fill them, Hoch notes, it will be difficult to recast this retail infrastructure to provide a better sense of “discovery” for shoppers. One major obstacle: Some of the abandoned space is likely to be created by the departureof large anchor department stores with many entrances that are not easily transformed into new uses.

Despite shoppers’ dissatisfaction with the sameness of shopping malls, Hoch suggests it is unlikely that local independent retailers with niche concepts will find a place in malls. “People are complaining about the same-old, same-old, but I think it’s not clear that mall shoppers are the most creative group out there. They do go for predictability,” he says, adding that mom and pop establishments are usually highly specialized destination stores that would not benefit from paying high mall rents to capture sales from walk-by traffic.

“Malls need to figure out what to do, because there is going to be more and more excess space as chains close down their less profitable outlets,” he says. “There’s going to be a lot of space in the mall that is dark. Malls have to be very concerned because if parts of their properties go dark, it can [look like] an abandoned neighborhood.”