Consumer Behavior

Field Notes on the New Face of Affluence, the Migration of Wealth and Changing Cityscapes

Paco-Final-imageThe most frightening story of 2013 that reverberated across the retail world was the terrorist assault on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. More than 70 people were killed. One of the key premises that have driven the expansion of shopping malls and the growth of organized retail across the world has been safety. Malls provide a secure, climate-controlled and clean environment, and for both old and new money consumers. In emerging markets like Kenya, it is a leap from the 19th to the 21st Century in one self-contained property. The mall has a suite of interchangeable parts, from brands to food courts, which makes it as close to a global vocabulary as you get. Where it gets different is security.

In Brazil, some mall security services are linked to boxing schools. The guards are well dressed, but have scar tissue around their eyes. In malls in India, your trunk is inspected and the undercarriage examined with a mirror. In Israel and Turkey you pass through a metal detector, like Checkpoint Charlie at the airport. By comparison, North America mall security is window dressing.

This past holiday season there were two incidents that hit all the major wire services. At Short Hills Mall in wealthy section of New Jersey a young family was accosted in the covered parking lot. The father was shot and killed in front of his wife and small child and his car was highjacked, only to be discovered several days later abandoned in downtown Newark. Several days later, a shoplifter trying to avoid arrest, knocked down a large display at the Roosevelt Field Mall on Long Island; the crash sounded like gun shots causing a merchants to quickly close their stores and shoppers to flee. It took hours for the mall to get back to normal.

William Whyte, the great American Urbanist, had a theory that if a space were populated by the “right” people, the “wrong” people wouldn’t show up. But who are the wrong people these days? In North America, most suburban malls have little, or no connection to public transportation. Thus the unwritten Whyte rule could have been interpreted as, ‘the wrong people are those that don’t own cars.’ One of the struggles mall merchants have today is getting low-paid employees to their jobs. North American mall operators have finally looked offshore to Europe and Japan, in particular, for inspiration and now realize that having public transportation access may not be such a bad idea after all.

The wrong people were often people that looked different from the images in a merchant’s catalogs, advertising or visual merchandising. As the first affluent Asian tourists poured into Paris in the mid-1990s, the French luxury merchants reacted with horror as busloads of what they perceived to be “the great unwashed” poured their doors. Twenty years later those same merchants have prospered mightily by selling their goods to emerging market consumers. Those Parisian stores still get some of today’s affluent traffic, but the majority of the business has migrated to locations in Tokyo, Shanghai, Singapore and Bangkok.

Appearances are Deceiving

One of the challenges retailers has is that the visual appearance of an appropriate customer can be deceiving. Some associates will swear that by looking at watches, shoes, manicures, handbags, and teeth, they can make a judgment call on someone’s credit worthiness. Money no longer has a pure peaches-and-cream complexion. We get stories of stores getting it wrong, whether it’s Macy’s in Herald Square, or a small merchant in Zurich who did not recognize Oprah Winfrey.

In 2014 we are revisiting the concept of the “wanted and unwanted.” It is not just that complexion of money has changed, but the self-segregating model described by William Whyte is no longer operative.

In a shrinking world, budget airlines and troubled currencies have upset some of the basic rules that have governed polite commercial and public spaces. For city managers, shopping malls, and retail store operators, this has created a series of headaches as visitors spill into a city with no sense of the local protocol. And even more challenging, no concept of the preceding old-world lifestyle. At least in Paris in 1992, those Asian tourists pouring into the Hermes store had lots of cash in their pockets to compensate for not playing the traditional role models.

Old World, Reframed

Prague is a lovely city. It is one of few European capitals that never suffered the ravages of war. The architecture of the old city and Prague Castle on the hill are testament to a more gentle civilization. Culture seems to ooze out of every cobblestone. So why are the citizens so sullen? The short answer is that the city is overrun with “undesirables.” Availability of cheap liquor and good beer, a liberal attitude to both hard and soft drugs, and a flourishing brothel market that rivals Amsterdam’s, make this a beautiful but dark-side party city. It’s known for being bachelor party central for the Germans, Brits and Irish. A strong Euro against the Czech koruna presents meals, drinks and encounters at rock-bottom rates for visitors. But on the flip side of this is that, even in the elegant shopping districts, you get the occasional cloud of marijuana smoke and packs of very inebriated young men. Cutting through a dark park at the back of Central Train Station on an early evening, I saw people shooting up on benches, something I hadn’t seen since New York’s Bryant Park was a doper’s sanctuary in the 1970s.

Still, what was most disturbing in the crowded streets of old city was the sight of prostrated beggars. These supplicants are not Romas with hollow-eyed babies, or the physically challenged; rather able-bodied youth, aggressive enough to lay claim to active public passageways. Since they can’t troll for a job, they can troll for drink money. My sympathies are with the locals who see their elegant city overwhelmed.

Changing Demographics

The manners and attitudes of our modern cities are in flux. With an aging population shaping the future of our urban centers; growing masses of young, disenfranchised, jobless youth; and an influx of tourists taking advantage of the weak dollar with plenty of cash to spend, our cities need to do some serious thinking about planning. Everything is changing, and we can transport ourselves into any country at the speed of jet travel, no matter what our income levels and spending potentials. How do urban planners create vibrant cities that welcome people of so many different backgrounds? Merchants also need to rethink their understanding of the ethnic mix of our new societies, which are increasingly melded and cross-pollinated among so many cultures. Their marketing messages could better mirror their customers, leveling the retail playing field and making their brands more embracive and inclusive. It also argues for a different approach to policing.

We can naively stand on our own shores and not recognize the implications of the future by not acknowledging global changes. Our sense of privilege is undergoing change. We live with the illusion of safety, yet are a nation with Columbine and Newtown in recent memory. This may sound dark and bleak, but it is real. As 2014 breaks, we have the chance to face, rather than back into, our future. We can re-imagine a more inclusive society, and recognize how collaborating with the power of our differences can shape a rich and sustainable future.

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