In the Mind of the Mall

Consumer mazes, online and off

by Emma Kofman

Illustration by Franco Zacharzewski

published April 6, 2018

I got lost trying to go see what it’s like to get lost in an American mall—the hallmark of teen movies, the corndogs, the sanitized yet unsanitary play spaces. Malls are confusing, and it is not an accident. They are at once familiar and strange. A less-than-logical design and aesthetic makes the alien territory feel earthly/American no matter what state or city or suburb you’re in.

Providence Place, a mall in the heart of Downtown Providence, follows in the traditions of the mall space. Its entrances are dark enclosures, some with massage chairs. I enter through one of these portals (known as “transition zones”) and then from dim lights and muted carpets, I’m spit into the fray—the din of the mall, the bright, reflective surfaces and I am bathed in even, fluorescent light and the smell of Auntie Anne’s. The interior is timeless; there are no clocks and the outdoors are intentionally obscured through colored or semi-opaque windows.

The similarities permeating mall spaces make them understandable to us: a mall exists as it does precisely because it is a mall. However, this facade of familiarity obscures the intentionality behind the structuring of the mall. Mall organization and architecture use scripted disorientation, decision fatigue, and the invariant right (most people turn right upon entering a store), along with other patterns of human-behavior-turned-manipulative-consumer-strategy to encourage spending. The convergence of these techniques in the shopping mall is termed the ‘Gruen effect.’



I work my way up from the ground floor to the top floor. Not many people are taking the elevators, and I choose not to either.

It would be too exhausting, though, to marathon the circuitous, disjointed escalators. The upward and downward escalators are placed next to each other, meaning to go up two floors I have to walk a frustrating half-circle to reach the next upward escalator—stopping at each level practically becomes a necessity.

I notice the elevators are all glass and pasted on the outer glass tube are double-sided ads for a deal: “ONE PERSON. TWO DISHES.”

Retail is shrewdly aware of how willpower drops as decision fatigue sets in. Coined by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, the term “decision fatigue” refers to how after making a lot of decisions—whether taxing, like constantly resisting temptations to stick to your diet, or more menial, like choosing what you are going to wear in the morning—your willpower is depleted. By back-loading their questions about custom features, car salesmen net on average $2,000 more from their customers. In grocery stores, the most commonly bought foods (eggs, bread, et cetera) are kept intentionally apart, putting extraneous items intentionally in your path; and when you make it to the register finally, the candy appears, all colorful and shining.

When I reach the top of the mall, after I’ve walked the length of the squiggling and swimming carpet many times, I’m met with the food court. At Pinkberry they have more toppings than I remember, and I cycle through permutations. I order the same swirl I haven’t had since ninth grade. It tastes like an icy color.

Psychologist Jean Twenge, while working as a post-doctoral fellow in Baumeister’s lab, conducted a study based off the exhaustion she experienced while planning her wedding. She found that willpower was depleted simply through the act of decision-making rather than the difficulty of the decisions being made. Participants were able to select a gift from a large pile of options. One group was allowed to pick at random. In the other group, the participants had to deduce their gift by answering a series of questions about their preferences. Afterwards, the participants held their hands in ice water for as long as they could stand to. The second group kept their hands in the ice water for less than half the time of the first group.

Another study, conducted by Todd Heatherton at Dartmouth, found that consuming glucose restores willpower depleted by decision fatigue. Perhaps that is double motivation to buy the Almond Joy (or Pinkberry) at checkout. The mall is one great sequence of decisions, some of them overlapping, all of them overwhelming. There are stores to go into, temptations to avoid, brands to choose from—and the mall is constructed so that these decisions become traps we fall into.



Online retail is credited with killing the American store and shopping mall. Online shopping not only saves you a commute, but also give you the illusion of control. There’s a reassuring comprehensiveness to ordering something online. You could go through all 64 pages of can openers on Amazon before finally buying the one with Prime shipping that you clicked on originally. I use the web even when I’m shopping in person. I don’t know what knives are the best, so in Bed Bath & Beyond I pull Amazon up on my phone to try to match their best-selling brands to the prices and blades in front of me. Easily overwhelmed, I decide to buy the knives later. I have research to do. However, the web is not simply a tool for its users, as we would like to naively believe; in actuality, the online world and marketplace has repurposed many of the same scripted disorientation techniques as malls to trap, confuse, and suggestively reorient its users.

Just as Providence Place removes clocks and uses even lighting to create an illusion of timelessness, Snapchat makes the normally omnipresent clock at the top of my iPhone screen disappear when I scroll through my “Discover” page. I lose track of time surfing, virtually browsing. In Providence Place, there are colorful ads lining the walkways, drawing me into stores with already eye-catching displays. The same loud advertisements appear on the sides of my browser—distractions in the periphery, leading me astray as I try to scroll (or walk) intentionally forwards. Online, reading an article has become a choose-your-own adventure. Every hyperlink encountered is a choice to be made. Do I keep reading? Do I click and see why the word “includes” is blue and underlined? I do; it links to some scientific journal I can’t understand. I return back to the article I was reading, and “includes” is now purple, reminding us both of its allure.

The internet-as-mall makes Hansel and Gretel relevant again, a renewed importance of breadcrumbs and trails and finding your way home again. Of keeping track of and being accountable for yourself. Opening things in new tabs and windows as you go down the Wikipedia or hyperlink wormhole, an expansion that makes the spatial dimensions of your screen more complicated to navigate and sort through. Eventually finding your way back to your inbox or article. The web, like the witch, knows how to misdirect you and what to put in your path when it does. Hopefully, I navigate to the end of the article. If I do, I’m often met with a fresh onslaught of options.

Many of these distractions are brought to you by companies like Taboola and Outbrain, which are responsible for the often-sensational row of ads that appear at the bottom, side, or middle of many webpages. Links to articles like: “The Secret Dangers of Coconut Oil” or more ominously (Outbrain clearly has access to my location), “Providence, Rhode Island: This Genius Startup Is Disrupting a $200 Billion Industry.” I get to this point and I’m tired. I’ve said no to the pop-up upon entering the site that asks me to sign up to get a great deal, I’ve clicked to and away from different links, I’ve actually read a whole article.

Simply the act of clicking on an ad like the ones offered by Taboola or Outbrain generates money for both the companies involved in creating and hosting the content. Taboola’s founder said in a 2016 interview for the New York Times, “We have been told from major, major publishers that we have become their No. 1 revenue provider.” He also touted a more altruistic message: “The vision is to index the entire web and bring the best, most personalized stuff to people.”

Personalization helps create and sustain consumer desires. In Providence Place, the Brooks Brothers is next to the Tiffany & Co. is next to the J. Crew is next to the Michael Kors. Algorithms are similarly predicated on anticipatory design, and have troves of user data to use in their calculations. Netflix and Amazon offer their eerie recommendations; Gmail suggests off-season sales for pirate costumes after my sister jokingly pens an email in pirate-speak. Google results and Facebook feeds are tailored to you, with algorithms determining what content, including sponsored content, is most relevant to you and placing that up top. Mall parking lots are intentionally unnavigable—if you are dreading the “find your car among all the different colored, numbered pillars, sloped levels, and lack of pedestrian walkways” memory game, you will be more likely to postpone it and spend more time in the mall. Algorithms and this mathematical personalization have the same end goal, are also designed to keep consumers in the (online) store for longer.



In physical stores, personalization comes in the form of sales associates. Despite the growing importance of online sales, most retailers still try to incentivize customers to visit their brick-and-mortar spaces; consumers are susceptible to different things in person than they are online. When I walked into Madewell, a beaming sales representative asked if I needed help finding anything, if I needed a dressing room; they told me that I needed to buy the pants I tried on, which they also told me fit perfectly. It felt like Cinderella’s mice were bringing me all the things I’d ever desire. The personalized attention made me giddy. In Lush I almost bought the “yummy” orange and vanilla lotion that reminded the salesperson of a Creamsicle.

The salespeople at American Apparel were told to dress in the company’s clothing and wear minimal makeup in order to look like the models in the company’s advertisements. Walking into the store, customers saw real, beautiful people effortlessly looking that good in the clothing and wanted to also look that good. Employees are often incentivized to use these tactics. American Apparel salespeople were paid partly on commission. Some stores with greeters hire people to enter the stores and make sure the greeters are saying their “Hello!”s enthusiastically enough.

I’m online shopping and it wants to help me. Its name is Linda, and Linda is sitting in the bottom-right corner of the site, in the shape of a person, wearing an antennae-like headset and wiggling about. When I click to say “hi,” Linda pings back immediately with a full paragraph, a mission statement. I minimize the imperfect replica of an accommodating salesperson; Chatbot Linda is more frustrating than useful, more impersonal than not. Simulated and pixelated hospitality is not as effective as a warm and dim store with the right music and smells and smiles.

It’s much easier to tell a chatbot to leave me alone than it is a nice person just trying to do their job (even if a large part of that person’s job is the act of being nice). In person there is still a level of customer service and catering (and manipulation) that isn’t yet possible on the web. Though trying to imitate this aspect of physical retail, the online customer service experience falls short.




The mechanisms of internet economies are being used to inform and revitalize physical economies. One’s actual footprints are tracked like one’s virtual footprints: stores use facial recognition software to track how customers move around and to note their demographics. Consumers can be reduced to both digital and live, in-person cookies.

In 2015 Walmart began using facial recognition software in order to mitigate “loss prevention” and increase the quality of customer service. The technology scanned customers’ faces as they entered the store, flagging known shoplifters and notifying staff immediately upon their entrance. It also looked out for customers who looked disgruntled or unhappy, making sure a chipper sales associate could come by and offer their assistance (imagine getting an annoying text, sneering, then being asked if you needed help finding the right cereal). Several months later, without a high enough return on investment, the experiment ended.

Since then however, facial recognition technology has vastly ‘improved.’ Facebook announced that their latest facial recognition algorithm can not only recognize faces almost as accurately as humans can, but can also recognize people even when their faces are obscured (using clothing, body language, hairstyle, et cetera).

Instead of being arrested, some stores give shoplifters the ‘option’ of having their faces photographed and stored in databases. It is unclear if these databases are used only for in-store loss prevention, or distributed or sold to other parties. Either way, facial recognition algorithms have been shown to be biased; it  matters who is writing these algorithms (Silicon Valley is dominated by white men), and it matters how diverse the data is which sets the algorithms. As these biases begin to be aided by technologies whose objectivity and accuracy are often overestimated, public spaces will become increasingly perilous for people already subject to discriminatory practices.

Unlike online, there are no privacy settings (however paltry) in the physical world, no way to obscure your identity—especially if you can still be identified when you are faceless. And legislation isn’t on the consumer-as-human-being’s side: privacy advocates walked out of talks with the US Commerce Department that sought to create voluntary guidelines for use of facial recognition software. One major concern is that consumers are often unaware of and uninformed about facial recognition software use; the customer is never asked for their consent. Additionally, the customer is unable to find out exactly what data is being extracted from their existing in public space. Retailers are very opaque about what they are using the software for and who has access to the information it collects. It is possible consumers’ photos are being put in databases and profiled by third parties, or that the data collected is not protected from hackers.

Beyond facial recognition, technology is being used to revive retail and move people (at least partially) off of the web and back into the real world. Providence Place has free Wi-Fi, outlets, and USB ports everywhere. On Thayer, stores like Urban Outfitters and Kung Fu Tea have their own apps, which often come with rewards programs. Groupon helps users find extreme discounts—deals are everywhere, if you know to look for them online. Stores can virtually send you notifications: “We miss you. Take 20 percent off your next purchase,” reminding you of their presence no matter how physically distant you are. The mall is trying to reassert itself and is using the pervasiveness of the internet to do so.




The mall is more than just a space for errands, for finding things you didn’t even know you wanted or needed. It is also a simulated space where unsupervised, suburban teens can walk around aimlessly and explore. A commons where you can be seen in a public space and are able to engage in an economy. You go on the internet to similarly stumble around and be entertained, to socialize and exchange ideas in chat rooms or statuses instead of over tables in food courts. Like the quest to the mall, you don’t always know when you’ve found what you’re looking for; rather, you stay in search of information, invested in a rewards system. You may be lost, but these architectures of desire will make sure you make it to the checkout.


Emma Kofman B’20 buys the onion-cutting goggles on the way to refreshing her inbox.