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These are the tricks shopping malls use to make sure you spend more time and money at stores

  • Staff Writer: Andrew Thompson

South Africa has a staggering number of shopping malls. By 2017, the country had more than 23 million square metres of shopping centre space, at close to 2000 malls - putting it 8th in the world in terms of coverage.

Although traditional malls are dying off in some parts of the world, they’re still flourishing in South Africa. This is due to several factors - including a slow uptake of online shopping, perceived comfort and safety of a mall environment, and the presence of solid anchor tenants like grocery stores and pharmacies

Malls also have an important secondary role in South Africa as a social space. According to Stephen Whitehead, architect at Boogertman and Partners, “malls in South Africa also serve as a traditional ‘town square’ - a place to meet friends, relax, watch the passing show and interact with the community.”

What many shoppers don’t realise, though, is that this plays nicely into the hands of developers. And the fact that we spend so much time and money at these malls is no coincidence. 


Most malls employ several techniques to get more shoppers through their doors, and once there, they have a few tricks that get us to spend more money at more stores. 

According to Whitehead, centre designers must find a balance between user convenience, a comfortable environment, and optimising exposure to the mall’s full retail selection.

“There are broadly accepted principles around mall designs, access points, lengths, and throats,” he says. “And theories around design aspects like aisle widths, level of detail, and visual stimulation - all to optimise the shoppers mall experience, and maximise exposure and dwell time in the centre.”

Developers and their design teams then adapt and apply these basic principles and theories to suit the "site, climate, clientele, tenant types, and budget to meet the specific project objectives,” says Whitehead.

Whitehead also points out that there’s no hard and fast set of guidelines that developers must follow. The design and development of retail facilities is continually evolving, and developers learn from their mistakes, and others successes.

“Once you have the rules,” he says, “you paradoxically get the rule breakers, which are extremely successful. Trying to unravel the exceptions is almost more interesting than understanding the basic models.”

See also: It’s not just you, it really is getting harder to park at South African shopping centres – here’s why

Still, there are several design decisions you’ll find in several malls around the country that are at best slightly confounding to unsuspecting shoppers, but deliberate in their attempt to subtly manipulate visitors.

Here are some of the tricks malls use to get you to spend more time, and money, than you probably should:

Malls take you through a quick decompression as you enter.


Fourways, Mall
Canal walk has a decompression zone at all entrances that help prepare you for the big shop ahead Andrew Thompson/Business Insider South Africa

Most malls have some kind of transition zone that tees you up for a morning at the shops. These usually start at the immediate exterior of the mall, before you enter the main shopping area. 

In Call of the Mall: The Author of Why We Buy on the Geography of Shopping, author Paco Underhill says these transition zones are designed to ease shoppers slowly into the experience, rather than forcing them to make purchasing decisions immediately.

“This transition stage is one of the most critical things we’ve learned in two decades of studying how shoppers move through retail environments,” he writes. “Nothing too close to the door really registers.”

He argues that because of the time it takes shoppers to acclimatise to the mall, the best stores are never situated directly next to the entrance - instead it’s often the low-turnover stores that are located close to the entrances.



Anchor tenants – the stores you actually want to visit – are deep in the complex.


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Anchor tenants in South Africa are usually grocery stores, and are designed to pull you into the mall and increase foot traffic. Andrew Thompson/Business Insider South Africa

Most big malls bury their anchor tenants – the big-name stores you really need to visit – deep in the heart of the building, or place different anchors on opposite sides of the property.

Developers use these anchor tenants - in South Africa, typically stores like Woolworths, Checkers, Pick n Pay, and occasionally big pharmacies like Dis-Chem and Clicks - to draw shoppers into the heart of malls, and to expose them to more stores.

This increases foot traffic past smaller, lesser-known stores, in the hope that you’ll wander off course and splurge at a store you weren’t initially intending to visit.

By placing anchor tenants strategically, says Whitehead, it “maximises the exposure of the smaller tenants and line shops”.



Essential services, like ATMs, are carefully positioned in remote places.


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These ATMs in the V&A Waterfront are tucked away in an otherwise worthless dark corner of the basement. Andrew Thompson/Business Insider South Africa

Dead spots - such remote corners at the end of corridors, or stores behind a flight of stairs - are a problem for developers. That’s because these have little to no natural foot traffic passing them.

For this reason, stores that offer essential services - rather than impulse buys - such as banks, post offices, and some restaurants, are often deliberately placed in isolated corners.

The idea here is that shoppers will visit these businesses regardless of their locations. If you need to withdraw cash, you’ll find the ATM hidden in the dark basement corner that would be wasted on a traditional retailer. 

These essential services can also pull shoppers into the mall - someone who might just be running in quickly to fetch something at the post office may end up passing a different store that draws them in.



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There’s also a Post Office at the Waterfront, hidden down a dark alleyway in the middle of the retail section. Andrew Thompson/Business Insider South Africa


Stairs, lifts, and escalators will get you to walk past stores you didn’t intend to visit.


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These escalators in Fourways Mall allow shoppers to take in the view of surrounding stores, and still requires additional walking in order to get up or down. Andrew Thompson/Business Insider South Africa

Sometimes stairs and escalators in malls seem to be placed in the most obscure and inconvenient locations. You may even have to walk to the opposite side of the mall to find the next escalator up. That’s because without careful planning, these facilities can easily create unnecessary dead spots.

Multi-level malls must get shoppers to move between floors, but in many cases this is less about offering shoppers the quickest and most convenient option, and more about manipulating the flow to ensure shoppers traipse past stores they might otherwise miss.

It’s also a practice that occurs within large department stores that occupy multiple levels in a mall, like Edgars and Woolworths.

“The old Virgin store on Oxford Street in London had an escalator close to the entrance, that would immediately get shoppers to the upper levels,” says Whitehead. “But to get down off the first floor, you had to walk to a staircase at the very back of the store.” 

Whitehead questions whether present-day developers would be able to get away with such a blatant manipulation of shopper flow, or how it would impact on repeat visitors, but he believes it was a move that gave Virgin maximum shelf exposure.

Similar examples of strategic stairs, lifts and escalators are common in nearly all South African malls. Cape Town’s Garden’s Centre even reconfigured its escalators in a manner that delivers shoppers directly outside the key anchor tenants - while still ensuring foot traffic reaches the smaller stores nearby, either on arrival or departure.


It’s not your fault you’re getting lost.

Given that many new shopping centres are purpose-built from the ground up, it might be hard to understand why it’s so easy to get lost in them. 

But according to some design theories, a confusing layout can cause shoppers to slow down, wander with less purpose – and ultimately spend more.

Shoppers who enter a mall on a mission to make a single purchase and then leave immediately are of less value than those who get a bit lost. 

This is a trick often taken to an extreme by casinos - who create labyrinthine layouts and use curving pathways to lure you off course from your original intentions, and towards new machines.

Centre courts with natural lighting mimic old town squares to keep you around a little bit longer....


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Canal Walk has taken on a more modern Time’s Square approach at its centre. Andrew Thompson/Business Insider South Africa

Many South African malls are built around central courts, often with diffused natural lighting filtering through skylights. They also feature plant life, and even water features. 

Expansions to Fourways Mall, now the country’s biggest, even included a massive “market square” as its focal point.

But this is a shopping mall design that dates back to the mid-1900s, when Austrian architect Victor Gruen figured out a way to turn American malls into places where people would want to spend more time - and thus more money. 

Gruen did this by including naturally-lit gathering points that mimicked old town squares, along with organic features like plenty of greenery and water fountains. He also piped music into elevators and public spaces - the elevators in Fourways Mall now also include piped classical music that starts when the lifts are in motion.

These techniques became known as the Gruen Effect - and although now largely considered a dying trend as American malls start to shutter, many South African developers still draw heavily on these techniques to attract customers and get them to stick around a bit longer - especially in urban areas like Johannesburg, where so-called “third places” - those familiar destinations other than home and work - are likely to be shopping malls.



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Fourways Mall celebrates its massive skylight as a key design feature of the new mall. Andrew Thompson/Business Insider South Africa



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The skylight sheds diffused light onto a central court below filled with activities and other installations. Andrew Thompson/Business Insider South Africa

... but generally speaking the idea is to shut out the rest of the world.


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Most modern malls, like Canal Walk, have no eye-level windows. Andrew Thompson/Business Insider South Africa

Just as malls are eager to let some natural light in at certain locations, they’ll also shut off your other senses when it suits them.

Like in casinos, most modern malls limit windows to the outside world, and they carefully control the climate. 

Some local malls, like Nelson Mandela Square, Mall of Africa, Monte Casino, and the V&A Waterfront, do include open outside spaces, usually occupied by restaurants. But the moment you step through the large sliding doors and back inside, you’ll forget all about the real weather conditions, and lose track of time in the clock-less world.



The music is manipulating you.

This might sound like a conspiracy theory, but there are several studies that suggest music can impact on shopping habits – and you can be sure malls know that.

One of those studies, by theAmerican Psychological Association, says that music can coerce impulse buyers to make unplanned purchases. 

Although the true efficacy is yet to be measured, some argue that shoppers walking through malls can be manipulated by the tempo of music. A slow tempo might cause shoppers to slow down and browse more casually, whereas uptempo music might keep them moving more efficiently.



Centres may be tracking you via your cellphone.

Much like online shops, most modern brick and mortar developments continuously refine the user experience - and market specific products to existing customers - by tracking you throughout the shopping process.

In physical stores this is done using in-store cameras, Bluetooth beacons, or the mall’s free wifi.

Some malls will even track you before and after you leave; one shopping centre in Chicago introduced a high-end Asian grocer in its store offerings after tracking customers to and from Asian neighbourhoods

Unless you provide it, malls probably don't have too much personal information about you, but as long as the wifi on your phone is turned on, they can trace your steps as you move around, and use that information – and information from every other shopper – to better manipulate you in future.



There’s no such thing as free parking.


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Pick n Pay offers a discount on parking at the V&A Waterfront in exchange for a minimum purchase. Andrew Thompson/Business Insider South Africa

Parking plays a significant role in the shopping experience, and most South African malls are starting to charge for the privilege of safe and covered bays. 

Whitehead says that well-designed parking significantly enhances the shopper experience. “A single bumper bashing or poor experience in a parking lot can put someone off returning to the centre,” he says. And poorly planned parking layout that has obstructions, “dead legs”, and access and egress frustrations, might deter shoppers altogether. 

On the contrary, free or discounted parking is a huge attraction for thrifty shoppers. 

For this reason, many anchor tenants at big malls subsidise part of the parking fee, provided you make a minimum purchase at the store. This is less about the stores being generous, and more a deliberate trick to ensure the anchor tenants continue to attract regular grocery shoppers, while also pulling in mall customers to make impulse purchases in order to receive the so-called “free parking” benefit on offer.

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