Millions of dollars flying out of the King of Prussia Mall

Recently walking through the King of Prussia Mall at Christmas time, I was struck by multiple sights: the variety of shoppers, the Christmas cheer and decoration, and the number of possible activities in and around the mall. Yet, none of these could compete with my biggest realization that day: just how much money was flowing in and out of the mall.

The King of Prussia Mall is one of the biggest in the United States , is in the top 10 of malls by sales, and it helps anchor an edge city roughly twenty miles northwest of Philadelphia. It is a site to behold, particularly after an addition a few years ago that connected the two halves of the mall and added a new row of upscale retailers.

But, the biggest goal of the mall is to generate sales and profit. And it looked like the mall was doing just fine on the day I visited. Many shoppers had bags on their arms or strollers. Multiple stores I went into, ranging from smaller retailers to large department stores, had people perusing the racks and shelves. The type of stores at the mall and the people aiming to go into them also hint at the money consumers were willing to spend. With each American estimated to spend a little over $900 on Christmas gifts, the King of Prussia is a good place to spread that cash around.

The commercial activity around Christmas at this mall also hints at the future of shopping malls in the United States. Some malls might last longer than people think, particularly those located in wealthier areas and with a concentration of wealthier stores and a variety of opportunities (retail ranging from Dick’s Sporting Goods to Nordstrom’s to Primark and including restaurants and entertainment). The King of Prussia Mall is a destination mall, likely drawing visitors from a wider region than most malls.

And with all that money flowing around the mall that day, most people looked happy to be spending and enjoying the sights. I suppose those with fewer resources or anti-capitalists might not go to such an upscale mall in the first place but the whole scene looked like an advertisement for capitalism: spend freely in an impressive mall at Christmas time. What could be more American than that?

Twenty-first century American life: McMansions, SUVs, and celebrities

An argument that the first decade of the twenty-first century never really ended includes citing McMansions, SUVs, and celebrities as part of our current world:

You might be tempted to cap the perceptual 2000s in late 2008, when Obama was elected president and the investment banks Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns collapsed, taking down the housing market and much of the American economy with them. That collapse ended the tacky prosperity of the early 2000s, a period when the McMansion flourished, cheap gas fueled a love affair with giant SUVs, and pop culture was overrun with paparazzi shots of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan falling out of Los Angeles nightclubs while wearing low-rise jeans and trucker hats. Meanwhile, Facebook was metastasizing beyond college students, sculpting the basic contours of the digital environment much of the world now lives in. In hindsight, the moment in 2007 when the pop princess Britney Spears cracked under the paparazzi glare, attacked a car with an umbrella, and shaved her head feels like foreshadowing of the cultural brink to come, when none of this would feel so innocent or breezy.

The pairing of McMansions and SUVs continues. Both are still alive and well. Americans continue to purchase large vehicles and like driving (at least compared to alternatives). At the same time, Americans generally desire the largest new houses in the world. While housing prices may be really high in some urban markets, many still desire a starter home and suburban life.

Adding pop culture to this pair is an interesting choice. Do all three of these together suggest bigger is better or that consumption of all things – cars, homes, and people/celebrities – is what Americans want to see and experience? We have many images of celebrities driving around in expensive SUVs and living in large homes. As Americans in general like the idea of large homes, those in the public eye seem to gravitate toward large and showy homes. Their residences, such as those of sports stars and Hollywood stars, are usually beyond what the average American could buy (as are most McMansions).

These three together are likely not going to age well: do people need such large homes, large vehicles, and news about celebrities? Will future generations see this all as rampant excess and problematic? Yet, it is hard to see a future where Americans turn away from each of these three interests: new homes might be slightly smaller than in the recent past but a big shift has not occurred, driving is still necessary for most people to attain success, and celebrities allow consumers to consume people rather than created products.

The expansion of warehouses in sprawling locations

While the example here is from Georgia, this describes a lot of development in the United States today:

An announcement this week says that the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company will anchor a new industrial park being developed on the property. The company will occupy 1.5 million square feet of warehouse space, in what the Atlanta Business Chronicle calls the “largest build-to-suit industrial space under construction in metro Atlanta.” Goodyear is expected to employ about 150 Georgians in the facility.

Individually, headlines like this represent wins. Jobs are created, and local tax bases are fortified. Warehouses, in particular, tend to bring in significantly more in property taxes than the businesses that occupy them demand in county services such as public safety. Their byproduct, however, is traffic. Specifically, truck traffic…

The middle stage of both manufacturing and distribution requires warehouses, and Georgia’s geographic position and our ports and airport logistics hubs make the warehousing industry a logical fit for the state. This extends from the Port of Savannah all the way down I-16, up I-75 into metro Atlanta, and all the way around the metro area and into North Georgia. It’s truly a statewide issue.

And much like the projected cascade of new residents, new warehouses are coming. There is a proposal to build out 1,400 acres with 18 million square feet of warehouse space in Butts county, about half way between Atlanta and Macon. Seven hundred acres adjacent to the Budweiser brewery in Cartersville, northwest of Atlanta, have also been sold to be developed as warehouse space.

To make a world of Amazons, Walmarts, and Walgreens possible, trucks are needed. Lots of trucks. The warehouses need to be in strategic locations near growing populations so that the time between warehouse and store or delivery is reduced. To make one or two day delivery possible or have real-time inventory, there need to be locations that have a lot of goods ready to go. Black Friday or the Christmas retail season cannot happen as easily without warehouses.

As noted above, warehouses provide jobs and property taxes. They are not often aesthetically pleasing as the primary goal is to store goods, not interact with the public. They often occupy key sites in and around intersections and highways. They contribute truck traffic. I would guess few people would want to live right next to one given the noise and lights involved.

All of this connects to sprawling development in the United States. American communities tend to be spread out as people seek out single-family homes of a certain size and with enough distance from communities they might find problematic. Decades of sprawl fueled by the American Dream, the federal government, and numerous other actors means that warehouses are a common part of the landscape. Outside any major metropolitan area, there are rows upon rows of warehouses.

For another example of how this all plays out, see the rise of intermodal facilities (and the negative effects these can have on communities).

Can you sell a product with the main pitch that it will help consumers “keep up with the Joneses”?

Comcast is currently running an advertisement titled “The Joneses” that makes an explicit connection to keeping up with the consumer’s reference group:

It is regularly stated that consumers want to keep up with others around them. Reference groups matter as look to others around them as they consider what to acquire.

So, can you run a successful advertising campaign based on (1) regular human behavior (2) that is regularly maligned? “Keeping up the the Joneses” is not often a positive term. Instead, it implies striving to be like others. These strivers are not content; they have to earn approval through acquiring what others have. All of this can lead to conformity if everyone is chasing some trend or perceived advantage. Suburbanites have heard this critique for decades: they are trying to look like the leading middle- to upper-class suburbanites. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, perhaps these people are viewed as violating the tenth commandment.

Perhaps this is all meant to be ironic. “Keep up with the Joneses” while winking or doing something unusual with all of that high-speed Internet. But, this commercial does not seem to have that tone. The goal does seem to be to have the same high-speed connection as everyone else. Maybe the true story is something like this: “keep up with the Joneses’ and everyone can use that Internet to hide in their private residences and do their own thing online and in social media.

Separating the ills of suburbia from the ills of the United States

The critiques of the American suburbs are common and persistent. But, how many of them are unique to the suburbs as opposed to multiple American settings or American society as a whole? A thought experiment with a number of the ills of suburbia:

  1. Consumerism. Present everywhere with displays of wealth such as expensive housing, cars, and technological goods alongside just having a lot of stuff. Certain suburban symbols may catch attention – such as McMansions and SUVs – but these are present all over the place. Excessive or wasteful consumption is not solely an American problem.
  2. Sprawl. This may seem like a uniquely suburban problem. Yet, numerous American cities have varying levels of density and lots of single-family home neighborhoods (even if these homes are closer together).
  3. Driving. Suburbs may be more dependent or designed around automobiles but so are most American cities and urban neighborhoods. And  rural areas would be very different without widespread access to cars.
  4. Conformity. Mass culture is everywhere, even if cities are often regarded as having more diversity and cultural experiences. This is related to consumerism as many Americans are thoroughly immersed (just see the figures on how much media Americans consume a day).
  5. Inequality. Across categories of race, class, and gender, American communities of all kinds experience problems. They may manifest differently in each context but addressing inequality in the suburbs would not solve the problem in the entire country.
  6. Lack of true community. Social ties seem to be more tenuous across the United States as a whole and the influence of and trust in institutions of all kinds has declined. Americans are famously individualistic, whether in suburbs or other settings.

Another way to think about it: did these problems begin in suburbs or are they amplified or exacerbated by suburbs? Imagine the United States where only 30% of American lived in suburbs: might driving and sprawl still be an issue? Would the problems of inequality be alleviated?

Can you tidy up with Marie Kondo in a McMansion?

A review of the new show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo contrasts organizing with purchasing a McMansion:

Stylistically, Tidying Up is gentle. Marie Kondo is a soothing presence—never soporific, somehow, but always engaging. She is twee, almost unbearably so, which is an affect not really seen in American television personalities. About 15 minutes into every episode, Kondo takes a moment to commune with the house, selecting a spot in the residence and kneeling in silent reverence. This goes on for longer than feels comfortable; sometimes the subjects join her, and sometimes they seem like they’re enjoying it. Conflict, when it happens, feels softer than it would on House Hunters, where couples routinely argue with increasing venom over the necessity of a mudroom in the home of their dreams.

The beauty of Marie Kondo’s world is that tidying is not punishment. She subverts the chore of cleaning by imbuing it with a radical sense of self-improvement. Unlike the underlying economic status anxiety that colors all of HGTV’s offerings, Tidying Up is more self-help than self-defeat. The home improvements, and by extension, life improvements, come not from buying a McMansion in Indiana, but from clearing life’s detritus out of your home to make way for something else.

The end of the review posits a dichotomous choice: either buying a McMansion to assuage status anxiety or tidying up to feel better.

But, I imagine many Americans would want to try to do both: purchase the McMansion or a large home and find a way to organize and declutter that home so that they feel better. Yet, this path seems to go against the path Kondo and others would prefer where Americans can’t have it all and have to make choices about their lives to prioritize well-being. Having a large home helps people feel like they can purchase and acquire more stuff. Having a bigger home is part of a consumer culture where buying bigger and more is a good thing.

One important step to the Kondo life would then be to not purchase the biggest home possible. How many Americans would be willing to do that or is it simply easier to buy into a tidying strategy that could be utilized in any home?

Ads showing giving a new car as a Christmas gift

Given the American love of driving and American consumerism, is it a surprise to see lots of car commercials at Christmas suggesting people are gifting others new cars?

But traditionally December means steep discounts for cars, and with annual dealership goals and sales quotas knocking, people buy cars in December for a lot of reasons. More than 17 million new cars and trucks were sold last year; 1.6 million were sold in December. Some were gifts, some necessary purchases that conveniently doubled as gifts. Said Akshay Anand, executive analyst at Kelley Blue Book: “The thing that isn’t talked about much is that the big luxury manufacturers are all competing in December to claim they were the ‘luxury brand sales leader of the year.’ ” Which is partly why Lexus, BMW and Mercedes’ Christmas ads are so frequent.

At McGrath Lexus of Chicago, “it’s our busiest time of the year,” said Heather O’Malley, the sales manager for new cars. She said McGrath sells about 120 cars each December at its dealership on Division Street. Maybe five or six are Christmas gifts. “And I have done the whole surprise car-gift thing like in the ads. A husband takes his wife to breakfast and arranges for us to leave the car in the driveway with a big red bow when they return — I love doing that.”…

Cynthia Tenhouse, general manager of product and consumer marketing for Lexus, is aware of the years of grumblings: “There is a lot of cynicism out there — this is never meant to be realistic.” The goal was aspirational (the agency that makes the commercials is Los Angeles-based Team One, which specializes in premium brands like Haagen-Dazs and Ritz-Carlton). In the 1990s, when the “December to Remember” campaign began, “we just wanted to be a part of the holiday culture without having to do just another ‘car sales event.’ ” But they do recognize “we need to be sensitive to what is happening (in the world), and so every year we make small changes because of what is happening.” This year the message is, a Lexus delivers throughout the year — it’s not just a holiday gift anymore….

He’s president of the Car Bow Store outside Philadelphia, which bills itself as the largest manufacturer of oversized car bows in the country. (Yes, there are others.) The Lexus commercials, he says, are a boom for his business. He sells 25,000 giant bows a year, most during the holiday season, to both dealerships and car buyers. “It’s staggering how many people out there are actually giving cars as Christmas gifts.” That said, he never received a car as a gift, “and I don’t know anyone who ever has.”

The formula: people want to buy new cars at the end of the year because of discounts/new models available + lots of spending at Christmas + dealers and manufacturers looking to do well at the end of the year = opportunity to push big-ticket items like cars through advertisements.

While these ads may seem more obvious at Christmas, car commercials are all over the place at other times of the year too. I can’t think of a similar big-ticket item that receives so much ad space. Houses cost a lot more – and it is hard to sell individualized homes through a mass commercial. Smartphones are all over the ads too but even the most expensive models available to the public come nowhere near the price of a new car. All of those car commercials viewed over a lifetime must have some effect, even if it simply reinforces that cars in the abstract are desirable and we need them in society.

I would be interested to know what the effect of giving a new car as a gift is in the long run. It is a large item. It is a necessary item for many people in order to get to work and other places. Because a new car is both expensive yet necessary, does it feel like a gift longer or does it become mundane just as quickly because it is used regularly?