Thursday, September 25, 2008

Barton Creek Square Mall

Barton Creek Square was originally built in 1981; the movie theater was added in 1998 and the Food Court in 1999. In 2003 Montgomery Ward moved out, allowing Nordstrom’s and twenty smaller stores to take its place. It may be the numerous add-ons and changes made to the mall that account for the reason that I continuously get disoriented in it.

One reason for my disorientation is that the directional signs in the entire mall are almost useless. They are very small and are not apparent to a customer casually glancing around. Customers would have to deliberately search for a sign to point them in the right direction. The signs on each side of the large open space where the Guest Services kiosk is located do not even have “Guest Services” on them. If a customer were lost, it would be hard to find the place to ask where to go because of the lack of signage. An employee stationed at Guest Services said the most common questions she is asked are where to find certain stores, where the restrooms are, and if they can have a map. But she told us, “The map is very confusing” and she often has to tell the customers how to get where they intend to go anyway.

Another signage issue in the mall is the safety warnings on the escalators. Nancy Hedrick, the mall manager, stated that one of the most common dangerous offenses by customers is running up the down escalator, which is sometimes even encouraged by parents. The escalator safety rules and possible dangers are not clearly posted. There are small signs posted inside the escalator at both the top and the bottom. Therefore if someone actually wanted to read the sign they would have to stop and get very close, thus blocking the escalator for the use of other customers behind them. The signs are almost impossible to read and virtually useless. But as Nancy Hedrick said, no one reads the signs anyway.

Nancy Hedrick explained that the mall’s owner, Simon Malls, is working on getting some of the tile on the floor replaced. Soon after, I saw a woman very noticeably trip in her high heels. She returned to the spot where it happened and was determined to discover what she had stumbled over, although she could never seem to find the culprit for her near disaster.

Almost every employee that we talked to on the lower level made a comment about the “maze” restrooms that were formerly mall offices. For starters, the entrance is in a badly lit corner with a sign that doesn’t stand out. The temperature rose a few degrees when I started to make the trek down the long, narrow corridor. I passed numerous locked doors and an electrical circuit box, and then had to turn two corners before coming upon the “Lounge” area with the door to the women’s restroom that I almost missed. While sitting in the lounge area recording my observations, a security guard came out of the restroom, took a few steps in one direction, then muttered, “Oops, wrong way,” and turned to leave in the other direction to an outside door. Even an employee who probably frequents that restroom seemed to be disoriented.

I am curious about the arrangement of the seating areas. Many of the benches are paired together back to back, which seems normal, but they are askew in their alignment with the rest of the space. They are not perpendicular to the tile on the floor or the other furniture in the area, or even straight between the columns. Although Nancy Hendrick mentioned that the male to female shopper ratio was about 50/50, I noticed that there were significantly more men than women relaxing in the seating areas. I asked one man sitting in a cozy-looking leather chair on the lower level what he thought of the space that he was relaxing in, and he replied, “I dunno, it’s a chair where I need one.” His comment shows that the designers were successful in providing convenience to the customers as far as strategic location of each seating area.

I am also curious about the architectural decisions for the ceiling in the entire mall. The diverse angles and stair-step indentions don’t seem to have much pattern or logic to them besides making the ceiling visually interesting. The sunroofs, in my opinion, were a good design decision because they help the customer feel more like they are outdoors rather than trapped in a giant enclosed space. I noticed that there are lights in the square sunroofs, so that maybe when the sunlight is low it still gives off the impression of natural light.

The man working at the Godiva Chocolatier cart, located on the lower level in the open space nearest Dillard’s, said that he enjoyed the lighting in that particular area. He also said that the demographics in that part of the mall were useful for his business. He claimed that there are usually more women and couples in the area, probably because there are not many children’s stores around besides Club Libby Lu above him that often plays children’s music, like the Hokey Pokey, loudly. In the six months that he has worked there he has noticed that since the water fountains are far away, people tend to buy lots of bottled water. According to the map, there is only one water fountain on the lower level and one on the upper level.

The employee working at the T-Mobile cart located on the lower level near Guest Services said he thinks he gets more business where he is stationed by the escalators. He also thinks that his particular area of the mall feels plain and gloomy because it is not very well lit, and it would be a more family-friendly place if the lighting were better. He was a former employee of T-Mobile at Highland Mall, which he thinks has a more laid back atmosphere than Barton Creek Mall where he has worked for a week.

The girls who work at Bebe gave suggestions about what they would change about Barton Creek Mall. They would put in more elevators, mostly for the customers with strollers who only have one elevator to get them from level to level. They would also put Bebe and Bebe Sport near each other in the mall to increase sales. They would change the “weird access” to the restrooms, referring to the maze-like restrooms on the lower level that I previously discussed. They would also unlock the mall doors earlier for employees who have to get there at 7am to avoid coming in the only unlocked door that is in a dark alley.

One customer visiting from Detroit said that Barton Creek Mall is, “better than most malls in Detroit” as far as cleanliness is concerned. He also enjoyed all the samples that the restaurants in the Food Court were offering. Another customer complained about the Dillard’s Men’s and Children’s departments not being connected to the rest of Dillard’s, which I also find to be confusing and illogical.

I observed that a lot of effort was put into distinguishing the Food Court from the rest of the mall. For example, there are two gates leading into the seating area that serve no purpose since customers can walk around them or in through any other way to get to the restaurants. I also noticed that styles of the tables and chairs change from section to section, as well as some of the tile on the floor that divides the seating areas.

Many shoppers, including myself, forget where they parked once they are ready to leave the mall. Either they forgot where they came in due to spending so much time in the fabricated world, or they simply cannot orient themselves within the mall to be able to get back out. Eventually everyone figures out how to leave, and many manage to make their way back for another shopping, walking, or dining experience.

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