Often I find myself back in malls nowadays as a mechanism for killing time. As a kid, the mall was the place to be. That was the meeting spot for the great minds of the time. A movie theater, food court, and arcade were the recipe for four hours of wandering for a group of preteens. Hours spent running around, dipping in and out of stores, and at no point spending any money. Once my friends and I started making money we grew out of the mall hangs. Being back in these malls has been like a time machine. The light and smell of place is the same, but sensory cues aren’t the only things triggering memories. A lot of the stuff is literally the same. It’s amazing how most malls haven’t changed at all.
The entrance directory is redundant. The stores have been the same for decades. Walking in, you know what you’re getting. Most malls are run by only a few companies, so they mirror all the other shopping centers under the umbrella organization. A lot of these stores only exist inside malls.It’d be alarming to see a lot of these shops out in the wild. If I drove through a city and saw a standalone Spencer’s Gifts, I’d leave hastily while writing a handwritten letter of grievance to the Mayor. These stores only serve a purpose as being part of a unit. With many of these collections being uniform, only small measures are available for forging individual character.
There aren’t very many ways to make a mall unique and most attempts are silly. As a kid, my local mall had a sculpture of giant copper penguins tossing a silver ball to each other. Every mall has something to this effect. Some unusual art piece, a big fountain, or an atrium to set itself apart. They don’t make you feel like you’re in something new. These details might not even catch your eye. My interest is more peaked by a store being misplaced than any of the decor around it. I’ll walk right by a painting of the farm that used to inhabit the mall’s lot, but I’m taken aback if I see an Auntie Anne’s as a middle kiosk as opposed to its own storefront on the side. The stuff in the middle is the most eye catching, and it’s supposed to be this way. Your eyesight is gonna be there anyway, so it’s ripe for attention grabbing. Marketers take big swings with these shops adding flare and pizazz you wouldn’t see in a normal store. The middle kiosks are the most productive way that malls differentiate themselves.
Most stores in a mall are set in stone, but these middle kiosks are the only wildcards provided in the mall experience. A couple shoe stores, department store, sporting goods, the store for teens who think they’re cool, the store for teens who think being cool is uncool, and a candle store. These are all within the rubric of what we’ve accepted a mall to be, which leaves the kiosks at the bottom of the totem pole. They’re seemingly the least important shops which leads to interesting products being pushed there. Somehow the products of the center kiosk have to provide marketable products that don’t compete with those in the standard stores.
The items up for sale in mall kiosks exist somewhere in the realm between the creativity of infomercial products and the stabs at innovation entrepreneur's take on shark tank. A lot of attempts to be practical and innovative at the same time while not fully succeeding at either. The most obnoxious example of this was the water massage machine at my mall. You would lay down in a chamber and water pressure would massage your back with pulsations, oscillations, etc. It serves the purpose of a massage without the fear of human contact. The stress reliever that people didn’t know they wanted, right? I think this has failed to take off due to general unappeal as well as factors such as claustrophobia, confusion and a distaste of wasting water. The other mainstay of my mall kiosks was belt buckles with an led screen. The screen would have a message that you could customize. The advertised models had messages like “Let’s Party” or “Friday Night!”. Everyone knew the whole purpose of these belts was so you could write “hey I’m dave, look at my dick” on it. That’s it. An accessory for the dick jokes of your choosing. Spencer’s gifts is full of dick joke related merch, but those were written by Spencer himself. The center kiosk gives you option to personalize your own dick joke.
Many kiosk stores exist based on the selling point that they can help you personalize and curate your own unique style. The dick joke belt is only a drop in the ocean of personalized items in the middle. Before internet shopping became the norm, the kiosks were your best bet for some hip customization. The most relevant of these was the cell phone cover store, oh my! So many ways to customize your razor, sidekick, or flip phone. Making the right decision at this crossroads is paramount to how you cool you will be and ultimately your worth as an individual. Do you want to get one that matches your backpack? Matches your ringtone? Or do you wanna forgo matching because matching is for chodes? This kiosk had all options. The cool and mysterious kid got a skull and crossbone. The hip chick got a pink and bedazzled cover. If you wanted to brag that you’re friends with your dad, you’d get a cover with the Rolling Stones lips. All these themes and logos are represented in the custom kiosk. Without breaking stride, you could walk down the middle of the mall and grab a cell phone cover, t shirt, and fedora all customized with as many Batman logos as you want.
If you weren’t into logos or patterns, the craftsmen at these shops could put your own name on the merch. My biggest issue with name brand clothing is always been that none of their items have my name on them in a font of my choice. Hey Levi’s! Why don’t you put my name in Wingdings on the butt cheeks??? Then everyone could learn my name as I strut away. I’d never have to introduce myself again if I had my name in cursive on a leopard print baseball cap. The market was based on these types of issues being solved. The center aisle of the mall was a row of solutions for problems you didn't know you had. These were kinds of intrusions on your needs before promoted ads were popping up on your screen.
Internet shopping should have been the end of it these kiosks but somehow they have persevered. Online shopping has ruined Borders, Radioshack, and now Toy’s R Us, but somehow we still have these middle of the road merchants. They’re like the twinkies and cockroaches after a nuclear war. Somehow weathering the storm without any prevalent purpose. The internet culture and marketplace only strengthened the commerce among the kiosks. They adapted where many brick and mortar stores did not. Online culture became the inspiration for the new merchandise. Now every kiosk is latent with different kinds of emjoi parafunalia. T shirts, pillows, keychain...etc. They will put the shit emoji on all of it. Apparently it sells. It’s mostly the same merch except the customization model shifted towards a trend based theme. Names are swapped out for relevant phrases or trending topics. The same shirts have swapped out the words”Doug’s shirt” for stuff like “Yolo” and “Come at me bro”. Same stuff different labels.
Although the people who work them all seem to be the same timeless folks, these center kiosks have evolved and added character to consistent malls they inhabit. Every person who works one of these has too much gel in their hair, a bluetooth earpiece, or phone clip on his or her belt. The employees of these businesses look like the default models of a create-a-character for a video game about young professionals in 2002. These folks are the steady presence juxtaposed against the ever changing merch they’re pushing. Pushing cases for flip phones then to smartphones and bedazzled wallets then to bedazzled wallets for your cell phone plus the original wallet. These shifts are not halting anytime soon. More and more, I see the spots reserved for massage chairs replaced with VR machine booths. If I take another decade long break from malls, I’ll probably come back to find robot experiences being sold at the kiosks. They won’t be marketed as sex robots, but they’ll probably be utilized as such. Then you’ll still be able to get bourbon chicken in the food court and a Larry Bird jersey at the sports memorabilia store. After the robot and the shops, you can walk right past the fountain you never look at on your way to the parking lot. The only differences between a mall trip then and now is what went on in the middle. Whether it be sex robots or some other futuristic fad, these are the factors that keep the malls new and give us a reason to check back in.