Friday, December 02, 2005

'Tis The Season To Be Broke
by Robert B. Reich

'Tis the season for retailers to be jolly if American consumers empty their wallets over the next three weeks. But how can we empty our wallets if our wallets are already empty?

Consumer confidence appears to have bounced back from the low brought on by the hurricanes and subsequently high gas prices. But it’s still below what it was before Katrina. And last week’s survey by the Conference Board showed something of a drop in shopper enthusiasm. Households say they intend to spend a bit less this holiday season than last.

Consumer spending is now more than three-quarters of the whole national economy – a record high. There’s nothing left to spend. Yes, gas prices have settled down a bit, but so have paychecks. General Motors, Merck, and major airlines are laying off tens of thousands.

Job growth is anemic and pay is lousy. American families have exhausted all the coping mechanisms we’ve been using for years to spend more.

The first coping mechanism, which began decades ago when mens’ hourly wages first began dropping, was for spouses to go into paid work. But now that most adult women are on payrolls – including even the mothers of toddlers – this strategy has generated just about all the cash it can.

How else to pay for more spending? The second coping mechanism has been to work longer hours. This past year, the typical working American put in two full weeks more at the office or factory than was the case two decades ago. Americans are now working harder than even the notoriously industrious Japanese. But we’ve reached the limit. I mean, we have to sleep.

Which brings us to the third coping mechanism – taking equity out of our homes. Last year alone, Americans pulled out $600 billion through refinancing. But this cash machine is also about depleted because housing values have leveled off and mortgage rates are rising.

Where else to find the money? The final coping mechanism is to go deeper into debt. For five years now, American households have spent more money than they’ve earned – pushing their debt to a record high. But we’ve hit the wall here, too, folks. Interest payments on all that debt are exploding.

On top of that, there are tens of millions of baby boomers within sight of retirement. They have to start saving, or else their twilight years will be spent in darkness.

Put it all together and you see why we’re running on empty. We’re busted. We’ve exhausted all the coping mechanisms for spending more. Our buying binge has to come to an end.

The only question is whether the binge stops before Christmas shopping season, or American consumers make one big, final, irresponsible splurge over the next three weeks, and then call it quits.

Robert B. Reich was U.S. Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, and co-founder of the American Prospect magazine. He also offers weekly comments for NPR's "Marketplace." The above is his most recent commentary.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Shopping for a Movie? How About A Movie About Shopping?

from the San Francisco Chronicle

Shopping is better than sex, according to one buying-spree specialist. At least after leaving the store you have something to show for it. Feeling suicidal? The right pair of shoes can save your life. You can become anything you want when you shop: a slut, a glamour queen, a rock star. You can even be Grace Kelly. Even if you do own 54 bras.

Just a few of the comments Henry Jaglom evoked from 80-odd shopping addicts he interviewed during the making of "Going Shopping," a continuation of the independent filmmaker's cinematic study of women and their compulsive needs.


Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Raging Grannies demonstrate against military recruiting at Wal-Mart.  Posted by Picasa
Wal-Mart in the Red

Today's New York Times highlights the latest evidence of political favoritism to Wal-Mart, a major corporate contributor to the Republicans and the Bush administration.

The Bush Labor Department entered into an agreement with Wal-Mart to give them 15 days notice before they conduct inspections for child labor law violations--- after Wal-Mart was caught violating those laws eighty-five times.

Wal-Mart also got to help write the agreement, and the press release announcing it.

Here's the lead:

The Labor Department's inspector general strongly criticized department officials yesterday for "serious breakdowns" in procedures involving an agreement promising Wal-Mart Stores 15 days' notice before labor investigators would inspect its stores for child labor violations.

The report by the inspector general faulted department officials for making "significant concessions" to Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer, without obtaining anything in return. The report also criticized department officials for letting Wal-Mart lawyers write substantial parts of the settlement and for leaving the department's own legal division out of the settlement process.

Why was the Labor Department involved in the first place? Because it found 85 child labor violations at Wal-Mart stories in three states. These included children under 18 operating chain saws and carboard balers.

In addition to paying less that a hundred and fifty thousand dollars in fines (while not admitting wrongdoing) Wal-Mart got this incredible deal as part of its SETTLEMENT.

And that ain't all:

In addition to allowing the 15-day notice, the agreement lets Wal-Mart avoid civil citations and fines if it brings a store into compliance within 10 days of when the department notifies it of a violation.

In exchange for these concessions, the inspector general wrote, there was "little commitment from the employer beyond what it was already doing or required to do by law."

He also found that: "the Wal-Mart agreement may adversely impact W.H.D.'s authority to conduct future investigations and issue citations or penalty assessments, and potentially restrict information to the public."

And that that agreement "had the most far-reaching restriction" on the government's "authority to conduct investigations and assess" fines.

While the Labor Department said that the advance notification provisions applied only to child labor matters, the inspector general asserted that "the plain language of the advance notification clause applies to any potential violations, not just child labor violations."

The inspector general's even suggested that the Labor Department consulted with Wal-Mart on their news release on the settlement, which the department denied. However, their announcement came a month after the agreement was reached, and only after it was were leaked to a newspaper.

So was this at least a case of the Labor Department's inspector general doing his job? Not exactly. He looked into the matter at the specific request of U.S. Representative George Miller, California Democrat. According to the Times, Miller said:

the report showed that the Bush administration was seeking to do favors for a powerful friend and a major Republican contributor in Wal-Mart.

"The Bush Labor Department chose to do an unprecedented favor for Wal-Mart, despite the fact it is well known for violating labor laws, including child labor laws," Mr. Miller said. "The sweetheart deal put Wal-Mart employees at risk, undermined government effectiveness, and further undermined public confidence that the government is acting on its behalf."

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Grand Gateway Mall, China Posted by Hello
The Great Mall of China

They do things really big there. And why not? They've got a major portion of American wealth, they control American consumer business and they own America's financial destiny.

You've guessed I'm not talking about Texas. Or California. Everybody has known for a long time that China, with its immensely vast and humungous population spread over a huge chunk of the earth's surface, would dwarf everybody else if they ever got their economic act together. Guess what? They have.

They already produce a major proportion of the consumer goods sold here. Now they're not just making and selling, they're buying.

The largest shopping mall in the world is the Golden Resources Mall in Beijing. There are four malls in China larger than the Mall of America, the biggest in the U.S. West Edmonton Mall in Canada held the title of the world's biggest for several decades, but now there are two malls that are larger in China. By the end of this decade, China is expected to have at least 7 of the world's 10 largest shopping malls.

The South China Mall, complete with replica of the Arch de Triomphe, is three times the size of the Mall of America. It opens soon.

And Chinese consumers flock to them---by train, bus and increasingly by car. One mall is visited by 600,000 consumers in a single busy day. "Forget the idea that consumers in China don't have enough money to spend," said David Hand, a real estate and retailing expert. "There are people with a lot of money here. And that's driving the development of these shopping malls."

You may or may not have noticed that a lot of the consumer goods sold in American stores are made in China. The relationship of China to Wal-Mart, the world's largest business as well as the world's largest consumer outlet company, is incredibly tight. And Wal-Mart sets the standard for competition these days.

Then there's the little matter of the U.S. debt. This country's preposterous budget deficit hasn't collapsed the economy yet principally thanks to China. Lots of money is flowing into China for their consumer goods, which normally would raise the value of their currency. But that would make their goods cost more here in the land of buy now, buy forever. So China uses some of that inflow to buy U.S. dollars and essentially bankroll the Bush administration's war expenses plus the tax cut for the wealthy. All that helps support America’s buying habit.

Cynics might suggest that having centuries of experience in opium, the Chinese are adept at feeding addictions. They certainly are taking good care of their U.S. consumption addicts.

It all works great for the wealthy in the U.S., and for product consumption, although buying health care etc. is not so easy for the non-wealthy, and as manufacturing jobs disappear to China and service jobs to India and elsewhere, the gap grows and grows between the few who are wealthy and the rest of us.

So while the fading middle class in the U.S. hangs on with cheap stuff from Wal-Mart, the rich here are rolling in it, and the Chinese go to the malls. They can afford it.

Sooner or later, China will cut back on the money supply, probably when the economy here is so bad that U.S. consumers can't even buy enough cheap stuff from Wal-Mart to keep the Chinese factories humming. They are already experiencing some problems with workers who aren't content with bad pay, and even want to form unions (which the putatively Communist government can't really oppose, though they can try to control any collective action.)

When the Chinese pull back, everything they finance--including the housing bubble---bursts. That will hurt what remains of the middle class. The big beneficiaries of the Bush tax cuts won't suffer much. They're diversified, they've got property everywhere outside the country, and they've got the scratch to travel. So even if the malls all fall down here, why worry? They've got some great malls in China.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Mall of America: Kowinski photo Posted by Hello
The Mall is a Place

In his provocative and often insightful new book, In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World, John Thackara advocates for more attention to the behavior and feelings and states of mind prompted by the spaces we are so blithely building, like shopping malls and airports (which, as he brilliantly describes, are themselves mostly shopping malls, especially since the airport's profit depends on its retail sales).

He's surely right, as are others, that the design and nature of the mall changes our experience of time and space and place. But I stop short of agreeing with those who insist that shopping malls can't really be "places."

Maybe I'm guilty of being in that chorus of critics, since in THE MALLING OF AMERICA I do refer to malls as "placeless spaces." But that was to make a specific point, and there's lots of evidence that major design objectives plus the evolution of shopping malls have emphasized manipulating the space rather than growing a place.

The apparent placelessness is encouraged most of all by sameness. These days there is more variation in the design of malls than there was even a decade ago, but there's no getting around their basic similarities, and especially their repeated contents. It's the same chain stores from coast to coast, and now virtually around the world.

The scale is another problem. The shops have gotten larger, as the big box mentality spreads to the mall. Now there are malls within malls. But even where the shops maintain a single focus, they are part of a national or international chain, not only of supply, but of style. Nobody local gets to decide very much about what the place looks like. Thanks to computerized inventory, customers have more power over what gets sold, but only in terms of numbers and time. If you want a pink shirt when everyone else is buying white, or even a week after the local pink shirt craze, you may be out of luck. And no use complaining to the clerks or managers or "associates," because they can't do anything about it--that is, if you can get their attention away from their headsets.

So the corner store is gone, the drug store that sells ice cream, the bookstore where somebody has read the books. The mall is not the same place as Main Street, but it is still a place. If for no other reason but people.

People make the difference. Maybe the junior high girls go by the Gap instead of Old Navy because of the cute guy who works there. Or you always go to the Orange Julius at the mini-food court on the second floor after school instead of the Orange Julius at the big food court on the first floor, because the girl there gives you more drink and less ice.

People still shop at stores where somebody knows them and their tastes, because a certain percentage of the shopping high---I'd say at least half---comes from the experience. Sure, some stores give better shopping because they train their people better, but sometimes it comes down to individuals.

What makes a place a place is what defines anything else: difference, and choice. The differences aren't always big, but if the mall is what you've got, you learn the differences and you make the choices. Sometimes you find something special. I recall a little space near a small fountain at a mall, surrounded by plants (which were either plastic, or the kind that looks and feels like plastic) with a comfortable bench, where it was actually possible to sit and read.

At this point, malls have become places within places, and you can scroll down this blog to the comments on Greengate to see what I mean. Greengate Mall had a history, and that history is in the experiences and memories of a generation of people. After all, malls are places where some children took their first steps, saw their first Santa; where couples met and even married; where old friends may still meet every Thursday for coffee.

You only have to listen to people talk in the mall to know that for them, it is a place. They may comment on the condition of the flowerbed out front, which is better or worse than last year, possibly because of that new manager.

Malls have gotten better at letting in natural light, and varying their design beyond the enclosed box. Malls---and even worse, big box stores---may be lousy places, with terrible lighting, lots of noise, crowded with products, and nowhere you'd like to be for very long. But once you learn where the restrooms are, and you've got areas that you go to and areas you don't, it's become a place in your life.

Sure, it doesn't have the same kind of complexity that natural places have, and we're deluding ourselves about our own planet by spending too much time in these overdetermined built environments. There's a cost to that, and discussions to be joined. But it's a little insulting to people and how they live their lives, which usually is to make the best of it, to deny that they are still people who are still creating and being in places.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

happy Easter from me and Gino Severini (who painted this of and for his daughter.) Posted by Hello
Spend the Children

I like to keep a weather eye on the consumption patterns of America. So I look around, I read the press, absorb the stats, and if I don't exactly bathe in the advertising, I do let it rain on me a little.

And merely because I'm hanging around this century, I've become dimly aware of how commercialized holidays of every kind are becoming. Christmas has been a longstanding challenge for me personally, but apparently the conquest of the rest of the consuming public is complete, because the marketeers have long since moved on to fill the calendar with sales. If you don't buy, you get to be a Scrooge twelve months of the year.

Valentine's Day, for instance. I've certainly felt a certain authenticity drained from this holiday, along with many more less traditional ones, by their relentless promotion. Like Christmas, it seems if you don't buy your sweetheart a diamond or at least a tasteful luxury automobile, your love will be called into question, and definitely not rewarded if you know what I mean.

I find it difficult to mark the lesser holidays at all anymore, because I feel so manipulated. I've attributed this primarily to the greeting card companies. But in that I have apparently been too specific.

I've likewise seen the numbers and the documentaries on the tremendous trends in marketing to children and teenagers, but it's generally not something I feel in my own life, since I don't have children (and consequently, grandchildren). So I have to admit to being a little startled by recent observations of writing colleagues who have each. Children and grandchildren, that is. What we do have as common reference are holidays and birthdays.

In her capacity as an on-line editor and writer for Trek Today, Michelle Erica Green occasionally writes a "site column" that includes personal observations. A recent one began: "When did Valentine's Day turn into Halloween? I got an inkling of what was to come when my younger son informed me that, in addition to cards, he would need to be giving out chocolate...He came home with a bag bigger than the one from the school Halloween party, decorated in hearts and filled with everything from boxes of Sponge Bob chocolate hearts to colored pencils..."

A child in school doubtless places Michelle in better position to realize that "Halloween has become big business in the US, catching up on Christmas in terms of dollars spent, and Valentine's Day shows every sign of following." I didn't know this, but it's not exactly a shock. There was a wonderful Preston Sturges comedy called "Christmas in July." Now apparently there's Christmas in October and February as well. And like the December edition, it's hectic with products linked to feelings, and so-called tradition becoming social pressure, felt by children and therefore, their parents (and grandparents.)

I do have nieces and a grand-nephew so I do know something about the rounds of closely scheduled activities that have apparently replaced the major occupation of my childhood, which we called---let's see if I can recall this arcane concept---playing. Or a little later, messing around. Not that we wouldn't have traded some forlorn boredom and longing for some better equipped and more organized activities, and certainly the character of much of our activity had to do with lack of money and access to today's more widely available amenities. Still, there was a simplicity that seemed appropriate.

As for celebrations, their joyousness or obnoxiousness seldom hinged on material factors, once the basic message was conveyed: yes, your parents love you enough to give you what kids get, and you don't have to be embarrassed in front of the other kids---at least not by this. I don't imagine it's all that different for today's children. But getting those increasingly complex basics together seems more of a problem for today's parents and grandparents. It certainly seems like more work, and of course, it's more expensive.

Or so I gather from a column by San Francisco's finest, Jon Carroll, writing about his granddaughter's fourth birthday. That he refers to her as The World's Most Perfect Grandchild (or TWMPC) should give you an idea of his attitude and willingness to indulge. But I have to admit to a certain culture shock in his description.

Birthday parties, even for my now-in-their early twenties' nieces, were cake and ice cream, presents, and maybe some balloons and paper plates, and a lot of kids running around screaming. No longer enough. You need the bounce house.

"...inflatable boxy structures where kids can hurl themselves about in a no-sharp-edges environment," Carroll patiently explains, and adds for the benefit of fellow birthday customs retards, "Bounce houses are to modern birthday parties what cakes were to the birthday parties of my youth."

Carroll's youth was just a bit before mine, so he's talking my language. The bounce house could be one of those items that parents pass around as needed. But what about the hired clown? Apparently also a new necessity. "I am not sure how the infrastructure of children's birthday parties has metastasized so much in 20 years" Carroll writes, but in outline it's easy enough to figure it out.

We writers often note that our holiday customs mostly come from a bizarre grabbag of folk cultures. Easter is a prime example (and of course immediately after V-Day, the stores restocked with Easter items), what with the rabbits and the eggs, the chicks and the chocolates, the risen Christ as the waking bear, all from different times, countries and cultures along with even more ancient vestiges of spring festivals and renewal ceremonies.

But that's only part of the holiday/ceremony story. It's not often noted that many of the most essential stylistic customs are associated with what the royals and the other rich do, or used to do, before their subjects aped them. The royal court furnishes the template for ceremonies from weddings to the high school prom. It used to be observed that the only time a laboring man wore a tux was at his wedding and his funeral. Limos, no longer the preferred transport for the rich, spend most of their time on our streets ferrying families from the church to the reception or the cemetery, or kids to the prom.

As the rich and famous adapt new customs, sooner or later they filter down to the suburbs and the town, to become the new necessity, especially for teenagers and children, who know nothing but the present and all the social pressures that surround them and their peers to be just like everybody else, except maybe a little more.

Among the latest migrations, it seems, is the goodie bag. It seems like only a few years ago that after some lavish party or ceremony like the Oscars, Hollywood celebrities began taking home goodie bags of very expensive items that they but few others could well afford, that were nevertheless given to them for free (usually by their manufacturers or purveyors).

No doubt the pedigree of the goodie bag goes back further than that, but the migration to childrens' birthday parties may well have been direct. In any case, Carroll informs us, the goodie bag given to all the kids as they leave the party, is "now an established custom, like Halloween."

Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Westinghouse Building at the 1939 World's Fair World of Tomorrow Posted by Hello
Mall Captain and the World of Tomorrow

The first biography of Victor Gruen, the architect generally credited with inventing the modern shopping mall, contains some fascinating details about his life that confirm a lot of what I wrote about in THE MALLING OF AMERICA.

The book is called Mall Maker, by M. Jeffrey Hardwick, an expansion of his PhD thesis published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Hardwick is now an editor at Smithsonian Press.

From what biographical sketches were available when I wrote my book, I knew that Gruen was born in Vienna, fled from Nazi oppression to America, arriving (so the story goes) nearly penniless but with some architect's tools. He later wrote extensively about his intentions and designs for Northland Mall in Detroit, the first two level mall developed as the center of a mini-city complex, and then Southdale in Minnesota, which added to this design a roof covering the central common area to protect against Minnesota winters, and this is usually called the first contemporary shopping mall.

Gruen modeled his mall projects on European shopping arcades, such as the magnificent Galleria in Milan, and introduced such European ideas as cafes, plazas and urban gardens, attempting to make the suburban shopping mall the combination of a pleasant place to spend time and a community gathering place. He designed environments for people on foot, though he also had to accommodate the primacy of cars.

Gruen had to fight a lot of skepticism (no one will walk up to a second floor, nobody will walk through a mall if they can't park right outside the store, Americans won't understand cafes, etc.) but when Southdale was a hit, his ideas were streamlined into the cookie-cutter version of the shopping mall that spread throughout America beginning in the 1960s. Gruen, who founded the Gruen Associates architectural firm in southern California, designed more malls and tried to adapt his ideas to downtowns and entire cities. He was a enthusiastic man who younger architects at his firm referred to as "Uncle Bubbly." But he became disillusioned with what the shopping mall had become, and returned to live in Vienna, which is where he died in 1980.

My own mall odyssey began at Greengate Mall on the edge of my hometown of Greensburg, PA. For a relatively small mall in a corner of western Pennsylvania, it had the distinction of being designed by Victor Gruen himself. It was developed by the Rouse Company, headed by James Rouse, who was an enthusiastic proponent of Gruen's ideas, and came closest to realizing them in his downtown projects like Fanueil Hall Marketplace in Boston.

So it was with special interest that I learned some new facts about Gruen's life. The first one that instantly got my attention was his background in theatre. While working in his godfather's architectural and engineering firm in Vienna after World War I, Gruen (whose real name was Gruenbaum) acted and staged political cabaret. He later said he was trying to relieve "the basic sadness of this time."

The mall as a theatrical environment was probably my first independent insight, and it was not hard to come to, standing on the second level of Gruen's Greengate. There was even something like a proscenium arch framing the floor below, with its polished stone plaza, soaring central court, and plashing fountain. Even the trip from one floor to another became theatrical, with different views and experiences depending on the choice: the earth-toned stone staircase, the gleaming silver escalators or the futuristic glass-walled elevator.

The next fact that fit concerned one of Gruen's first jobs in America (though it's true he arrived with little money, he also had good personal and professional contacts, so he got good work even though he didn't yet speak English.) He was a designer for the 1939 World's Fair.

But of course! The original "World of Tomorrow," this fair formed our iconic ideas of the future. (You can see them in close to a pure form in the 2004 popcorn feature, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, which is set in an alternate reality 1939.) Americans were introduced to new technologies, like television, and new ways of conceptualizing buildings, homes, cities and highways.

Much of the Fair itself was built using new plastic materials, like Lucite, which looked more substantial than they actually were. It was essentially the elevation of a stage set, especially the contrivances of movie sets, to the status of reality. That would happen big time in the shopping mall.

The Fair attempted to apply futuristic design and ideas to the American heartland and small town way of life, with its Perisphere soaring over "Democri-city". Its influence can be seen in Disneyland, with its contrived Main Street next door to Tomorrowland. (The first Disneyland was built at about the time that Gruen was designing his malls.) Gruen's malls also show this influence, being futuristic and yet familiar at the same time. I began calling the shopping mall Main Street in a spaceship.

Hardwick also unearthed the revelation that just after World War II, Gruen made a case for shopping centers as a national defense strategy. Scattered in suburbs, he argued, shopping centers would be harder than large cities for enemy airplanes and missiles to target, while providing well-equipped survival centers with "shelter areas."

Perhaps this has something to do with the fortress walls of shopping malls in later decades. This was another insight I had at Greengate: that it was the ultimate fallout shelter. This actually works on many levels to explain the mall's appeal, because it speaks not only to our need for joy and entertainment, to counter the basic sadness of our time, but it responds to our fears, and our need for shelter from them.

In the past year or so, I've gotten several emails and phone calls describing the destruction of Greengate Mall. One friend called me on his cell phone as he was literally passing the mall in the process of being demolished. Greengate started dying in the 1990s, and by the time I visited it in 1999, it was a shadow of its former self as a vibrant community center. It was eerie to be there then, because even though the mall was empty of people and many store spaces were abandoned, and there was some physical deterioration here and there, its basic structure was intact, including the gleaming floors and the soft splash of the fountain. It was a living ghost.

Now it's gone, the victim most recently of a nearby Wal-Mart. In its thirty-some years it became legendary, and people still tell stories about it, especially its fabled Christmas displays. It's interesting that Greensburg recently managed to preserve its architecturally significant old train station, virtually unused for decades but still there. They will have no such opportunity with Greengate, even though it was among the most architecturally significant structures of the postwar period in Westmoreland County, PA, with some national import as well. But no one is yet used to thinking of shopping malls as historic landmarks, and not many yet distinguish between the architecture of one mall and another.

Victor Gruen has never gotten much respect as an architect either. But now that several generations of buildings have passed, particularly in suburbia and the shopping mall form, the time is ripe for the reevaluation of Gruen as a designer, and of his particular designs. Unfortunately, all that is left of Greengate are photographs (though I don't know of any systematic attempt to document its architecture) and memories.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Happy 20th birthday to THE MALLING OF AMERICA, shown here in updated 2002 edition, available now from your online bookseller Posted by Hello