Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sustainable American Shopping Malls


Shopping Malls And Dysfunctional
American Consumerism

Dear General

I’m writing you because I want to work for you. I mean I truly would like to have a forward thinking conversation with you that might result in a future successful business relationship.

I am aware of the fact that your company, General Growth Properties is clearly between a rock and a hard place when it comes to its financial future these days. I’m aware of the fact that shopping malls across our nation are more or less all in the same economic boat as those owned and operated by your company. I’m also aware of the fact that while shopping malls are experiencing tough economic times so to is virtually every American consumer who shops at shopping malls. As I am a builder and master carpenter, my own trades are experiencing every bit the financial hardship as the rest of the country. We as a nation are simply stuck and in a manner in which we have never been stuck before, virtually every one of us are trying to figure out just exactly how to get unstuck.

Having said this, I’m writing you because I would like to become involved with a corporate entity the believes it is time to wholly redefine the socio-economic make up of retail malls throughout our United States of America. The failure of shopping malls is no different than the failure virtually every sector of our American economy is facing. As each and everyone of these failures represent a fundamental need to restructure the manner in which we approach 21st century economic problem solving, it is my hope that this letter will serve as a means of informing you as to how I view such restructuring taking place.

While you certainly possess a brilliant mind and when it comes to the successful development of established retail trends you are a genius, tuning to the far more imaginative, future oriented and truly visionary part of our collectively creative minds is now paramount. As any genius idiot can in our America today claim what he or she has accomplished as pertinent to their historic professional resume, historic entrepreneurial resumes are virtually meaningless when compared with the monumental changes that are occurring today in our nations rapidly evolving 21st century socio-industrial and entrepreneurial economy. In as much as we may all think that we have some license to justify our past entrepreneurial accomplishments, it is our capacity to clearly define the potential we have for future accomplishment that will determine our future entrepreneurial success. I simply think my visionary thoughts will benefit the future plans you may have for General Growth Properties.

First of all, American shopping malls have, over the course of the last three decades become synonymous with what I define as capitalizing on extremely short sighted ten year sociological trends that have virtually no bearing whatsoever on the much larger twenty, thirty or forty year techno-industrial trends that have quietly been developing and quietly taking shape over the same period of time.

Ten year sociological trends essentially state that what was socially popular in San Francisco or Boulder or New York ten years ago will eventually find the same popularity in other regions of the country. As more forward thinking ideas have historically come from these urban centers of commerce, eventually the uninspired social consciousness found within the heartland of America will eventually catch up to the leading edge thinking found in such areas. As those who are not from the heartland of America have up until now been able to envision such trends and in doing so capitalize on their more forward thinking portraits of what Americans both need and want, ten year sociological trends are simply not any longer an accurate measure of what the now evolved consumer throughout America actually needs and wants.

The trendy and more enlightened home furnishings, designer clothes, gourmet food products, American wines and off the shelf home improvement technologies that have historically provided mall owners with a strong retail tenant base buttressed by an equally strong consumer demand for the products sold in those retail environments has simply dwindled to nothing. The reason this is happening is that for the most part, the vast majority of the products retailed were, in spite of their ten year popularity cycles, more or less useless to the consumer another ten years later. The bottom line today therefore, is that the American consumer is not looking at what is sold in malls any more favorably than the trip they have to take to get to the mall.

Seeking a more tangible and long term return on what is purchased, the American consumer is looking upon the overall function of our nation’s entire industrial structure before he or she even for a moment thinks of simply going to the mall. What does a mall actually provide me with is now the question occupying the mindset of the consumer and unfortunately that answer is for mall developers today, absolutely nothing. Trendy products from trendy stores simply do not address the larger structural economic deficiencies making themselves known loud and clear to the highly frustrated, confused and entirely disenchanted American consumer.

Having said this and feeling quite confident that the typical American mall will most certainly be going by the wayside, something must emerge to replace the mall or more to the point, the old world economic consciousness the American mall has come to represent to Americans. While what that something might be is currently an illusive essay as much as it is statement of quandary over the collective failure of our entire American economy, within the context of that quandary is the definition of a new world American mall consciousness. To capitalize on the long term potential growth of this consciousness, mall developers simply have to tune themselves to that new consciousness. How they go about doing this is then crucial to understand.

Using the unprecedented growth of the California wine industry over the course of the last three decades as a potential model for new mall development is then a prime example of how redefining the social footprint of the American mall will enable the tenant retailer, the retailer’s consumer base and the mall developers themselves a set of much more dynamic options.

American wines benchmarked by the initial popularity of California wines, have become a celebration of the fact that regional vineyards have sprouted in virtually every geographical sector of our nation today. In spite of our nations current economic morass, regional vineyards are producing American labels that are consistently recognized as being world class in stature. Thus, in as much as the American economy is in turmoil, certain sectors of this economy are indeed thriving. The American wine industry is the perfect example of one sector that is.

Winemaking is a culturally advanced industry. Within the philosophical context of a culturally advanced industry is the remarkable understanding of the culture of the land and in turn the culture of the people who inhabit the land such an organic industry is grown in and around. As the development of a regional vineyard represents the evolution of the culture surrounding the vineyard, America today is rapidly becoming a nation filled with many nations which are in turn filled with many truly diversified cultural expressions that define a nation of many nations seriously focused on the regional maturity of thought and wisdom for the nation as a whole.

While this maturing process began some time ago and has been historically represented in our nation by the remarkable growth of the California wine industry in particular, the fact of the matter is that the American wine industry today, represents the advanced intellectual dreams and ambitions of a nation seeking a far more substantial and organic relationship with its larger eco-industrial potential. As the cultural art of winemaking has indeed become regional in America, the advancement of cultural economics in far to many other sectors of this economy have unfortunately not or at least not to the extent to which these sectors either could or should.

If regional wine making is a wholly advanced expression of what we as a nation of regional nations have the capability to produce for ourselves, the question is and remains why aren’t we actualizing those capabilities in all other economic sectors? To put this question into context, let’s move beyond America’s vineyards for a moment and turn to a discussion of American architecture.

Considering that American architecture is every bit as organically relevant as American winemaking, both of these industries are cultural industries. In other words, those who take the initiative to build architecturally significant homes for themselves are not building these homes for the same reasons that those who sign contracts to build and live in tract homes devoid of architectural significance do. As the tract homeowner is in the process of living the honorable and fatally stoic American dream, those that take the time to build architecturally significant homes are the same as those who take the time to fill the wine cellars of their homes with culturally significant regional wines.

While tract homeowners have come to be known as the American HGTV Group and this group is made up of millions of would be do it your self architects and home renovators, they are not master winemakers any more than they are master carpenters. In fact and in spite of their quest to be recognized as such, all they have really mastered is the ability to go to shopping malls and purchase via credit, the home accessories and interior decorating items made popular by HGTV. While the American economy has in the past fifteen years thrived upon the notion that wanna be architects are in fact nothing more than frustrated accountants or misplaced social workers, dysfunctional college professors and real estate agents turned interior decorators, the fact that this economy is no longer thriving is indeed an admonition that all we have done in our America for the past fifteen years is eek through another popular yet hopelessly impotent short term socio-economic trend.

Yet with all of these forays into short term economic prosperity, today the development of highly personalized regional architecture resides in the same vein as regional wine making which in turn resides in the vein of what regional shopping malls plagued by socio-economic redundancy have the potential to become. As on one hand only the few have the insight and self fortitude to realize the dreams that many share, the many do indeed have the same dream. Unfortunately today however, is the fact that the dream for all is benchmarked in wide spread organic economic inconsistencies. As a result, no dreams are forthcoming as regional winemakers and regional architects remain plagued by the economic obesity of national inorganic consumerism.

If you do not go to a mall and buy blue jeans sold at the Gap while sipping coffee from Starbucks after shopping for designer toilets at Home Depot, the organic potential of truly cultural commerce that separates the regional nuances of America’s many separate nations into dynamic hubs of new age commerce reside instead in piles of failed cookie cutter versions of failed organic economic visions.

In as much as it has unfortunately come to be known as such today, American architecture cannot be defined nor has it ever been able to be defined by what is store bought off the shelf of dime store architects turned quasi retailers of interior decorator designed gadgets. Instead, it must be defined within the historical definition of what it has always represented. American architecture has always represented “bloody knuckled inventiveness”. That inventiveness has always been embodied by the belief that change comes not from someone who hands us a free $100.00 dollar bill or a credit card and tells us to be free to shop for what is popular but by our reaction to the fact that if we were working from within the right industrial mindset, we in turn would produce the right industrial products for the right economic reasons.

As such reasons have within the history of our constantly evolving industrial economy really never been frivolous in nature and it has only been in times of both rare and extreme industrial transformation that we are able to see that our purchasing of illogical products are leading us nowhere, when we take the time to realize that we simply are no longer producing products that represent actual need, we also take the time to realize just how remarkably important it is for us to entirely redefine need. In today’s world, people who shop within the entrepreneurial environment of pure organic creativity shop because they are tuning themselves to that organic creativity and in turn tuning out anything that does not nurture that creativity.

Why aren’t American automobiles selling? There is absolutely no one in America who can justify using the automobile in the manner each and every one of us have for so long done. It is not that the American worker does not need the automobile, it is that the American worker is redefining his or her job description and that description does not include the same definition of transportation it once did. Yet without the same definition of transportation running through our economic heads, many other definitions of transportation are and it is these definitions finally understood by car manufacturers that will again find throngs of new car buyers flocking to their showrooms. This logic is precisely the same for shopping malls, if car manufacturers begin making the right kind of cars the right kind of consumers employed in the right kind of industries will in turn shop at the right kind of shopping malls they drive to in those cars.

Whereas today there is virtually nothing right about anything we are currently doing and it could be and has been said that it will take decades to understand what we are doing wrong, the question I pose is this; if all of our social, industrial and economic motivations are indeed organic in nature, shouldn’t all stores in every mall throughout America be organic in attitude as well?

As shops of this nature conjure up images that are absolutely non-generic and clearly community oriented in both scope and content, such organic economic images are today simply essential to define.

Within that definition, recognition must be given to the fact that what shops actually produce is key to the economies of the communities such shops reside in every bit the same manner the economic growth of those communities are key to the economic growth of our nation. As there is virtually no more validity to the economic argument that national chains only have to open up new regional outlets to remain competitive only to offer the same nationally redundant product line, on the heals of this redundancy is the overwhelming diversity of new technologies that if not manufactured and sold nationally will thrive even more so regionally due to the fact that we as a nation have finally come to understand regionalism in organic terms. As a solar collector might not sell in Minneapolis, Minnesota for the same reason it would sell in Tempe, Arizona, the solar collector does none the less sell in both places.

In other words, if a traditional national interior home accessory retailer such as Pier One Imports, or a traditional national home improvement chain such as Home Depot have reached a point of total market saturation (and they have) while at the same time still offering a somewhat viable national product line, new age mall shops that blend technology with both national and regional product needs as well as services that install and maintain product lines associated with those needs become far more effective retailers as they as well become far more effective as community based educators of new sustainable technologies and new sustainable organic life practices that are born from those technologies.

In essence, as Americans simply have no more patience with stupid impersonal retailers selling ambiguous product lines that have very little relevance to their actual life needs, as the American consumer has grown weary of entering into a mall retail shop only to be met with an uneducated and highly bored staff of dysfunctional human androids who are as disconnected to the human element of caring as they are the equally human need to educate the consumer, new age mall environments that firmly place such social emphasis into tenant lease agreements and the broader cultural philosophy that benchmarks that mall’s whole life regional marketing plan will indeed become the malls that mirror the emerging industrial consciousness moving quite dynamically across America’s entire retail sector.

As Americans have no more patience to deal with national retailers housed in impersonal shopping malls, they as well have no more patience with the local merchants in their own neighborhoods who for decades have complained that national retailers are driving them out of business when in fact local retailers deliberately blind themselves to the evolution of the very same technologies national retailers are also blind to. Within the context of this perfect21st century economic Catch 22, our nation wholly devoid of a rational economic growth policy sits economically idle at a time when the need to define something so far beyond idleness is desperately apparent to all.

So how does this portrait of industrial impotence come to an end? And, more to the point, how does applied industrial inventiveness turn into applied growth of the retail sector that is crucial to the growth of the broader and much more advanced industrial sector we as Americans clearly have the potential to create?

The answer is really quite simple and can be characterized by a portrait of yet another cultural economic anchor.

Shopping at a garden center whether it be locally owned and operated or a national or regional chain that serves as an anchor tenant for a regional mall (such as Frank’s Nursery And Crafts) brings to the consumer a sense of organic calm that at the very least is an escape from the chaos associated from shopping in any other retail environment. In a garden center one does not have to look at the label sewn into a hemline, the logo stamped into the leather of a trendy shoe or graphic signage that reminds the shopper that they are purchasing a product that has through mass marketing become the thing to purchase and of course the thing to wear or drive or the thing to place on the mantle of a designer fireplace. In a garden center, what draws the consumer into a state of organic calm is a simple plant, row upon row of simple plants and an entire architectural structure absolutely filled with simple plants. As if it is not even a store, the garden center is a sanctuary for the weary consumer whose only real desire is to buy a plant.

Once purchased, the plant is taken home and placed among other plants either inside of or outside of the building the garden center shopper calls home. A purchase unlike any other, the plant becomes an expression of the shopper which more or less states that they have purchased this product to not only grow but to grow with. Unlike groceries that are consumed or blue jeans that fade or cars that loose value and break, the plant grows and of course as the plant grows so to does the idea of expanding the personal garden of the consumer who purchased the plant at the architecturally significant garden center. As the plant is not affected very much by external marketing trends that can serve to place other retail products at the top of any niche market, the plant’s market and intrinsic value is just as all forms of art are, in the eye of the beholder and within the eye of the beholden gardener, that plant represents an investment into the gardeners cultural and personal future.

Due to the timeless and endearing qualities of both a plant and a garden, one might think that due to its product line, the garden center is more or less impervious to the market forces that affect the outcome of any other retail environment. In good economic times people buy plants. In bad economic times people buy plants. In good economic times people have the time to plant, sit and enjoy their gardens. In bad economic times people still have the time to plant, sit and enjoy their garden. While their temperament might be somewhat different during both good and bad times, none the less they garden and in doing so find themselves constantly investing in their organic future.

The dynamic elements of today’s economy, just like the dynamic elements of the current recession that is preventing the expansion of this economy are however, significantly different than all other dynamic elements of all recessions up until this point. Due to the complex nature of these elements, in today’s economy, people are not focusing on the purchase of plants, the growing of gardens or the peace of mind they would normally experience when doing so. Instead, they are focusing on their jobs and incomes. They are not however focusing on their jobs or incomes for fear of loosing both. They are instead focusing on what they clearly see as a remarkable transformation of their view on life and the subsequent yearning to create a job description that is, in many more ways than not, less to do with income or busyness and much more to do with personal productivity and the financial prosperity that comes from living in an organically active economic community.

As people who are gardeners simply like plants and as the vast majority of Americans are in one manner or another gardeners, when plants supplied by garden centers don’t sell any better than the automobiles that carry the gardeners to the garden center sell, something is clearly amiss. What is amiss is that people truly want to garden more in our America today than they are currently able to do, yet due to extraordinary industrial disconnect, the environment in which they envision gardening in is not within their realm of affordability.

They cannot garden in a greenhouse because they can’t afford the greenhouse to garden in. They cannot build a green interior environment inside their home because doing so is cost prohibitive. They cannot launch new careers in gardening, environmental healthcare, architecture or education because the homes they reside in don’t reflect the technologies that would create the jobs that would afford them the financial freedom to thrive in a new age green economy with these new age green careers.

They can’t do any of this because the stores that are going bankrupt in malls that are going bankrupt still possess a retail consciousness that suffocates the inherent brilliance of genuine American consumer inventiveness. By all means, go to the store and purchase something that distracts you from that brilliance but don’t in any manner whatsoever suggest to the shopkeeper that perhaps you may have an idea that would benefit the shopkeeper, yourself or the larger community from which all of you can collectively thrive if indeed you collectively diversified not only your conversations but the very careers that could easily spawn from such conversations.

As America today is locked into a deadening creative industrial silence, the progressive mall environment orchestrated by visionary developers is most certainly a place if not the only place that will serve to break the contemporary Da Vinci code of that silence. Whereas for decades corporate heads have within their narrowly defined market strategy convinced employees to view these strategies as the corporate mantra for success, today such strategies, due to what I would define as overly insular corporate protectionism has done nothing other than serve to drive the otherwise positive family dynamics of a forward thinking corporate entity into the tangle of economic confusion America currently and quite sadly has come to represent.

Why aren’t managers of national retail chains asking their customers what they really want?
Why aren’t customers able to speak to the corporate executives who hire these managers and share with them not only their future vision of the store they shop at but also their future goal of being employed at such a store because their new age career path has brought them to realize just how much they can contribute to that store’s whole retail diversity and in turn just how much that store can contribute to their own professional regional and national organic economic goals?

What would happen if all stores within a given mall re-adopted the once sacred social philosophy of “the customer is always right”?

What would happen if today as we are on the threshold of the most dynamic industrial transformation the world has ever experienced, the notion of the customer being always right were to be replaced with the much larger notion that the customer is actually a damned industrial genius who has spent the last several decades realizing the potential America has to move forward but has had virtually no avenue to express that genius.

What would happen if instead of conducting mindless market research over whether or not a certain pair of blue jeans may or may not sell in any given retail environment, a clothing retailer would instead ask the question why people actually wear blue jeans to begin with? While the answer to such a question might on one level appear to be rather obvious, on another level, the question placed into the dialogue of today’s highly contextual economy and amidst the remarkable cultural and regional/industrial transformation taking place is anything but obvious.

As the most compelling aspect of this transformation is the monumental loss of jobs in virtually every industrial sector, this job loss reflects an overall resurgence of old fashioned values benchmarked by the fact that the customer is indeed always right.

Within this rightness, people across America are clearly rededicating or realigning both their personal and professional goals with basic community goals. In turn they are in the midst of losing jobs at national or international companies, finding jobs or starting new careers within the regional consciousness growing throughout America. If a store that has historically done well selling blue jeans is fully conscious of this remarkable evolution of American industrial thought, the evolved sociology of a stores culture will reflect this evolution.

I am an engineer working in the field of solar energy. My job description demands a certain professional clothing mix. The vast majority of the clothing that I purchase is utilitarian based clothing that must be rugged in nature while being culturally elegant in style. Whereas I might at one moment be on a rooftop overseeing the installation of solar panels being installed at a regional winery, I will in turn find myself in that winery sipping the product the winery makes and I consume. If I am not on a rooftop or at a winery, I’m in my office working at my computer.

As opposed to working in a suit and managing from afar the installation of solar panels on the rooftop of a distant winery, I am, in my new age career role and with my new age wardrobe becoming actively engaged on several organic social levels with the growth of the regional economy myself and others throughout America are now quite optimistically inheriting.

Once again, if every store in every mall were to refocus its national retail mindset towards proactive regional economic, environmental and social activism, the makers of the blue jeans once considered social icons of previous ten year trends would come to evolve themselves toward the makers of entire lines of blue jean fashions that up until today have never even consciously considered and of course would come to represent much longer and much larger and much more diverse industrial trends

If every store in every mall was filled with consciously considerate employees who worked for consciously considerate corporate leaders, if every consumer that came into that store came knowing that their needs were being consciously considered equally by corporate leaders and employees, what would the outcome be?

The outcome would be that every garden shop would along with selling plants and flowers also sell greenhouses. By selling greenhouses and interior plant irrigation systems controlled by computers, they would also be selling accessories and component parts to greenhouses and interior plant irrigation systems. In turn they would leave themselves open to purchase specialized hybrid plants grown in the greenhouses that inhabit the region surrounding the mall. In turn again, those that shop at garden centers would be recognized for their expertise in the broad ranging field of American horticulture. In turn again the consumer would as a result of having a job, also have the financial wherewithal to afford to walk across the mall to the blue jean store and purchase the clothing they would need to wear as they worked in their greenhouses.

As all of this might very well sound like a utopian dream, the very technology we as an American society have been diligently perfecting in the last thirty years clearly suggests that it is definitely time to take the responsibility to actualize that dream as opposed to letting it languish in the abyss of economic uncertainty. As I began this essay to you with an expression of a wish that we work together, it is the work of disciplined dreamers turned visionary entrepreneurs anchored to a remarkably well-grounded insight into the structural elements of socio-economic change that assures that change is prosperous to those who take the risk to explore it and undertake the self discipline to perfect it.

As a master carpenter, I bring to you a most comprehensive structural insight into the inner workings of American architecture, American industry and American urban planning. Within the content of my mechanical knowledge lies the context of my insight into behavioral economics, fine wine, organic gardening and the intrinsic love I have for doing each and every aspect of what I do very well and very thoughtfully.

Developing a mall today requires the collective insight of a team that is fully conscious of future opportunity and fully aware of the stale mindset that has unfortunately rendered such opportunity socially and economically null and void. I’d love to sit down and have a chat with you and your team.

The Blue Collar Industrialist

M. Patrick Dahlke

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