Scenes From a Mall

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The death of retail. Photograph of Hugo Boss by Karen Olsson.

It was a gorgeous day at the outlet mall. The sun shone brightly on the Tuscanish facades, on parking lots that an optimist would have called half full, on the strip of patio and water feature called Gondola Park (though its narrow pool was devoid of gondolas), and the pretzel stand. One of my companions was hunting for a suit, the other wanted a new kitchen table, and so in defiance of the End of Shopping, we’d driven to San Marcos to lay down a little plastic—and meanwhile, having read about mega-retail’s mega-woes, to take the measure of the slump from up close.

The Prime Outlets in San Marcos , along with neighboring Tanger Outlet Center, are reported to draw something like seven million people a year, but on a Wednesday afternoon there seemed to be as many salespeople as customers in the stores. It should be noted that this would have been a slow day at the mall in any year, since February is a slow month, and this was the middle of a weekday, two days after a major sale day at that. (“President’s Day? What’s the tie-in?” asked our suit-seeker, who does not typically shop for much besides groceries and coffee drinks, and who couldn’t quite grasp the logic connecting presidential birthdays to retail bargains.) But when asked, store employees confirmed, unshockingly, that things had been extra slow.

For me the combined effect of the sparse crowd and the bright sunshine was to accentuate the hyperreal quality of the mall experience. Normally in a place like that I’d be checking out the other shoppers, the girl dressed in purple from head to toe, or the man pushing triplets, or the eight Winter Texans advancing in formation. Without them, the elevator music seemed louder, and the usual absurd incentives—"Buy three snacks, get the fourth free!" "Buy slightly damaged pots for a small discount!" "Get a free backlit remote with purchase of a refurbished stereo!"—seemed all the more absurd. Deep questions confounded me. Where will all this merchandise wind up if no one buys it? Is it really necessary for Banana Republic employees to wear headsets?

We met with success at Hugo Boss, even if that was more than the store could say about itself: a salesperson said she believed it had done less than half the sales on Monday than it had the last President’s Day. (In a later e-mail, Prime Outlets marketing director Celena McGuill spun the holiday differently, emphasizing visitors over sales. “Traffic for President’s Day weekend was up and there were a significant amount of shoppers,” she wrote. “Outlets hold the sweet spot in this economy—consumers are looking for the brands they know and love, but at discounted prices, and that is what we offer at Prime Outlets-San Marcos.”) We left Hugo Boss with a natty two-button brown suit (40 percent off, naturally), and in the afterglow, we stepped in and out of a few more stores. At Bose, the sales guys seemed to peg us as non-buyers right away: Though we were the only people in the shop, they lingered by the register while we stared at a large TV and listened to “Tiny Dancer.” At last one of them approached us and asked whether we wanted to watch a short promotional film in the store’s special theater.

Of course we did. As we followed him to a separate room (the “Bose Music Theater”) and took our seats, one of us wondered aloud whether we looked like buyers to him. “Regardless of what people look like,” he explained, “we’re supposed to show them our surround sound.” Then he said he would come back a little later with a surprise for us, which turned out to be that midway through the long commercial, he removed what were revealed to be fake speaker fronts to show us the very small speakers behind them, which had supplied the audio (along with a larger subwoofer partially hidden behind a plant). It was indeed theater: He performed his sales guy role, and we performed our consumer roles, watching a video that conjured that old dream-world in which better-quality leisure time is obtained through better-quality leisure-time products, in this case sound systems and a large-screen television. It was almost as if by spending enough money at the outlet mall, we wouldn’t ever have to spend more time at the outlet mall, which sufficed to hold our attention, until it was time to go.

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