Frame Game

The Emporium Strikes Back

Every year, news stories about online Christmas shopping become more pervasive and effusive: It’s fast, it’s cheap, it’s sweeping the country. This year, Internet companies have taken their campaign into enemy territory. They have sent emissaries to shopping malls with signs advising customers to flee the chaos of the malls for the sanctuary of their PCs. Now the malls are fighting back. They’re colonizing cyberspace with Web sites that invite surfers to log off and hit the stores. Here’s their pitch:

1. We’re fun. Many people prefer in-store shopping because they want to see and feel what they’re buying. But while the malls do advertise sensory advantages, they talk less about merchandise than about entertainment: live music, fashion shows, baby pageants, carousels, and miniature golf. The malls are maestros of counterspin. Whereas online sellers promise to liberate you from the congestion of shopping centers, malls invite you to ” people-watch” in their food courtyards. And while e-shopping spares you the trouble of dragging your kids around, the malls promise to entertain and “educate” children through activities healthier than sitting at a computer, such as art projects and puppet shows. Minnesota’s Mall of America has Pokémon “trainers” and a ” Lego Imagination Center.” Carolina Place Mall offers a “Science Show” and “Story Time for kids with cookies and milk.”

To lure Christmas shoppers, the malls promise tree lightings and other “sights and sounds of the holidays.” The big draw is Santa. The malls play it both ways: They use Santa’s physical presence to lure parents (“kids of all ages can have their photos taken with Jolly Old St. Nick”) and then offer, for an additional fee, to put the pictures on Web sites or CD-ROMs so that kids “can send [the images] to their loved ones over the Internet.” Tysons Corner Center, a mall near Washington, D.C., brags about its “real-bearded Santa” and “his authentic Santa autograph.” Tysons Corner then spills the beans to any child capable of reading the rest of the page: Santa is really Mike Graham, a former chef and construction company boss from Tennessee.

2. We’re hassle-free. Internet merchants point out that you don’t have to drive, walk, or lug packages and babies around when you shop online. The malls try to neutralize these annoyances. They offer valet parking, baby strollers, and free checking services for coats and packages. Chicago’s Gurnee Mills Mall boasts of its “baby changing tables and nursing rooms.” For shoppers who think of the Internet as a labor-saving device, Tysons Corner promotes an even simpler option: “Our Personal Shoppers will, for an hourly fee, take your requests and return with terrific gifts.”

3. We’re good exercise. The malls can’t dispute that you’ll have to walk a lot, so they spin it as a virtue. “Lace up your walking shoes, stride out to Carolina Place and join us in a form of exercise everyone can enjoy … Mall Walking,” says (which points out that its concourses are “climate controlled and barrier free”). advertises a ” Frequent Walker Rewards Program” featuring an “introductory walking for fitness session” with a “professional walker.” Ontario Mills, a California mall, promises that your “mall-mileage” will earn prizes–as long as you ” record your walk” during each visit.

Ontario Mills is particularly duplicitous. On a page for shoppers, the mall says it plays ” motivational music on Mills TV, so you can treat your mind and body to an enjoyable, healthy and rewarding exercise program.” But a page for advertisers reveals the truth: “Mills TV is a state-of-the-art, closed-circuit television network that saturates the common areas of Ontario Mills with commercial messages. … With a series of over 600 speakers and 40 overhead 80” large screen televisions spread throughout Ontario Mills, there is no escaping  the Mills TV message. … Mills TV keeps shoppers longer, creates a lasting impression of your business, and most importantly, activates the consumer’s impulse to buy.”

4. We’re good citizens. Online merchants advertise the capitalist advantages of not being anchored: easy access, low overhead, and minimal transaction costs. Malls advertise the civic virtue of being anchored: community service. They invite shoppers to participate in food drives, scholarship programs, and other mall-sponsored aid to “our neighbors” in “the community.” They also boast of providing venues for church and school choral groups. This month, for example, Tysons Corner is hosting the Holy Child Chorus, the Annandale United Methodist Church Choir, and the Fairfax Baptist Temple Academy.

5. We save you money. Before the Internet, you went to the mall because it was cheaper than mom-and-pop stores, and you went from one mall store to the next because you were already there. The mall offered a volume discount on your money and, in effect, on your time. Now that the Internet saves you more money and time than the mall does, malls have invented new volume discounts. Gurnee Mills offers a mall-wide coupon book. Mall of America advertises a frequent buyer program. There’s also a ” Mall V.I.P.” Visa card” that earns discounts at “hundreds of participating malls.”

6. We offer more choices. Web vendors promise a bigger selection of merchandise than you can find in any store. Malls are outflanking this pitch by pushing mall-wide gift certificates. The rationale for buying a mall gift certificate instead of a gift certificate at an online store is complex in theory but simple in practice. Yes, each online vendor has a wider selection of goods than each mall retailer does. And yes, cyberspace has a wider selection of goods than any mall does. But nobody has the time or mental bandwidth to search all of cyberspace, and given a choice between a single online store and a mall, you can probably find a wider selection at the mall. Some mall certificates, such as those advertised by New York’s Roosevelt Field mall, are good at hundreds of shopping centers.

7. We’re user-friendly. Rather than ignore or disparage the Internet, the malls exploit it. Gurnee Mills instructs visitors to fill out an online form to get coupon-book vouchers via e-mail. Tysons Corner touts the advantages of buying gift certificates online–you can “save time” and purchase them “from the comfort of your PC”–and it even advertises “special benefits that can only be received with online orders,” such as “special shipping rates.” Far from suggesting that e-commerce is a security hazard for credit card users–a common reason why many people refuse to shop online–malls go out of their way to dispel such concerns. In Massachusetts, Holyoke Mall encourages shoppers to buy “gift certificates online with our secure ordering service.” Tysons Corner assures users that it “employs sophisticated technology to safeguard online transactions. … The credit card and personal data you transmit is encrypted (scrambled) and sent to a secure server.”

8. We’re still your portal. Malls conquered the retail economy by providing a selection of goods broad enough and cheap enough to gain consumers’ trust and thereby control their options. When you wanted to shop, you went to the mall and confined your search to the stores you found there. The Internet has simply transferred this principle to cyberspace. Consumers who used to look for malls now look for portals, and malls intend to become those portals. “ brings the mall to you, at any time day or night, when YOU have the time to shop,” says that mall’s Web site. “Here you can browse upcoming events, locate your favorite stores in our store directory, shop online or find products before coming to the mall.”

By consolidating options and information on their Web sites, the malls command your attention and direct you to their stores. Need a gift idea? Tysons Corner has all the answers. Wondering what’s on sale? Scouring each company’s Web site could take forever, but Gurnee Mills puts all the information on one page. And while most malls let you click on links to their retailers, the links usually take you not to the national Web sites of those retailers but to dummy pages on the mall’s site that tell you only about that retailer’s store in the mall. In the new mall, like the old one, there is no escape.