Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Successful Day at the Mall

Park the car, run inside, go to the first shoe store I can find, locate the cutest black pumps in the store that will go perfectly with that new BCBG dress I just ordered, buy them and head back to my car. This is my usual trip to the mall, but today I will stop, think, and view the mall around me. I never have taken the time to see how such a massive public place is managed, organized, and designed in order to best please it’s usually oblivious customers.
When leaving my car in its miscellaneous spot among all of the other 7,500 parking spots surrounding the Barton Creek Mall, I quickly take note of the small “A-1” posted on a light post nearby. During my trek through the mall, I stumble upon the guest services help desk. It becomes apparent that amongst the small, almost unreadable signs with their uncontrasting colors, nothing was ever pointing in the direction of the help desk. I became curious to find out what the most common purpose was for the desk. When talking to the employee of the desk and asking her what the most common question she received was, she replied it was “most definitely” where certain stores were located. I found this ironic, since there were two directories on either side of the Services Stand and paper maps laying all around the counter for customers to take. I pointed this out and we decided that people like to have more of a personal direct answer, rather than cipher through a map. I asked a random sample of store employees, what was the most common question from customers. The answer was unanimous, “Where are the bathrooms?” So I went on a search for the bathrooms. The first one I found was tucked in a back dark corner and I later realized that most of the bathrooms were off of the main path and hidden away. One specific bathroom was the most commonly addressed about its bizarre location. In fact, when I went to find it, I had to ask the Bebe employees for help. They even told us that neither of them liked to use that bathroom because it was “creepy” and “weird”. So back into the inner depths of the mall we went, through the long halls supposedly leading us to the restrooms. The lighting was dim, electrical boxes were sticking out into the narrow walkway, and there were also apparently unused doors, with no signs or handles. As we sat in the lobby quickly writing notes on the odd design of the bathroom, a policewoman hurried out of the bathroom back down the hall, then one second later she walked back by going the opposite direction explaining how she always gets “lost in these halls”. Another common customer problem presented to employees was that people could never find the water fountain. The Godiva shop employee explained to us how he found this “very clever” because most people would just go ahead and buy the water from somewhere more convenient rather than find the water fountains if they even knew of their existence at all.
As I eagerly roamed the interior of the mall making note of each crack and crevice, a woman trips and barely catches her balance before falling to the floor. I quickly hide my gaze as she fervently looks around with embarrassment to see if anyone had caught sight of the scene. Then she proceeded to scan the ground to see what it is that had caused her to trip. In fact, it was the uneven tile floor that was at fault. I couldn’t imagine this was the first and only disturbance the tile has caused, and assumed that it must be very common. This brought about the issue of safety at the mall. With 12 million people in and out of the mall through the year, one wonders what dangers become present and how safety is regulated. Nancy Hedrick, the mall manager, reported that kids running up the escalators as a common hazard, particularly because parents did not understand the perils. As I stepped off of the escalator, I barely caught glance of a small sign posting the safety rules of the escalator. I could not even get close enough to read it because I would be in the way of other people exiting the escalator. Also, it is at a knee level, which would mean I would have to crouch down to read them. As I took note of these discoveries, a policeman rolled by on his Segway. It became apparent that the mall employs several police who give the customers a sense of security at the mall. Two young women employed by Bebe explained to me how they would change the mall, both of them agreed the mall management should open the main mall doors earlier. The employees are required by the manager of Bebe to be at work by 7:30 a.m., but the main mall doors aren’t open till 10:00 am. This requires them to enter through a back alleyway, alone, and in the dark- not a safe setting for young women.
As for the demographics of the Barton Creek Mall, it seems to be attracting more of the upper-middle class. With no play areas and minimal children’s stores, it is less of a family friendly mall. Of course there are certain areas of the mall that do attract more parents. When Theodore, a Godiva Shop employee, explained why he enjoyed his location he described it as the “ladies area”. With no kiosks and phone booths nearby he has less chaos and being farther away from the food court brings about less children and families. It is well recognized that the families that do come to Barton Creek are usually found in the food court, perhaps because this is where the only mall elevator is located. With strollers and young children, escalators and stairs are virtually impossible. A Sprint Employee explained to me the different characteristics of the Barton Creek shoppers versus those in other malls. He had just transferred from Highland Mall to Barton Creek Mall. He pointed out to us that there is a huge difference in customers of the two malls. Although he believes Barton Creek to be a very nice, clean mall, he has found the customers to be harder to talk to and snobbier than those of Highland Mall. He proceeded pointed out that he is very pleased with his location at the Barton Creek Mall. He is located right at the bottom of an escalator. He explains that his brings him several potential customers to either hassle or draw in with the Sprint Booths bright colorful ads. Theodore, the Godiva employee, explained his benefits of being near the columns. This helps control traffic and gives him an open view of potential customers coming from all directions.
When designing the Barton Creek Mall, the management informed the design team that they were looking for a “country club casual” look. Many design aspects compliment this description. For example, the neutral colors with the deep mahogany used to dress up necessary commercial misfits. For example, the mahogany covers made for the vending machines or the big mahogany frames for the directories. The neutral color pallet gives a clean feel to the mall, but allows for the signs to blend in with their surroundings. Also, the signs are very small, these two attributes are a huge cause of why people complain about getting lost and often ask questions concerning locations. When speaking with Nancy Hedrick it was obvious how much care and time she spent in picking out and displaying the seating areas. Curious in how the customers responded to these areas, I asked one for myself how he liked it and what it was that attracted him to the area. He simply explained, there is a chair and that is all that matters to me. I moved on to ask a mother with her children and her answer was the exact same. As I sat down to enjoy the seating area, I looked up to find an odd ceiling. The ceiling had strange indentions that seemed to have no pattern, along with angles that did not to match the ground plan. Also, many of the tenants pointed out that there are some areas where the mall is gloomy and little light gets in, while others have a sunnier setting. This is due to the odd placement of sunroofs in the ceiling. I was eager to see how the mall had applied its “country club casual” look to the Food Court. I was surprised to find mismatched tables and chairs and a maze-like walkway leading visitors in-between where people were eating. Hanging lights and large ceramic vases are used to dress up the area. The running water in the vases helped to drown out the loud hurried conversation of the people eating and the antique lamps on the columns gave a terrace feel. To go along with the terrace characteristics of the food court, awkward gates lead into the food court, but in fact it is just a gate entrance; it keeps nothing in or out. From the second floor of the food court looking down over the railing, it became apparent that not much care was given to the customer’s view from above. Many of the first floor store signs were unreadable from above. Also, the viewer sees a lot of roofs to the small carts. These roofs do not match the rest of the mall being made from cheap plastic with cut out stars acting as the cover. I was excited to hear an outsider’s view on the mall when I approached a man from Detroit on his thoughts of the mall. He said he was very pleased with it and has never seen such a nice mall in Detroit. He also added that he loved the samples in the food court, which I know is also very popular amongst my friends. When reading online reviews of the Barton Creek Mall, I found that other visitors from outside Austin found the Barton Creek mall easy to get around and good crowd with less chaos than most.
As I headed to my car and tried to recall in what section I parked, I felt that with many discoveries and observations, I had spent a successful day at the mall. Who would have thought a successful day at Barton Creek Mall could be a day when you left without spending a penny.

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