It’s 6:15 p.m. on Friday afternoon and I’m hanging out at the mall (Bellevue Square, if you must know.. my old stomping grounds). Given that I’m wearing my Yahoo! backpack and I’m walking around in jeans and sneakers, I look like your typical high school kid, minus the 5 o’clock shadow. I should fit in. But I don’t. Why? Because the high school kids don’t hang out here anymore.
It used to be that when you were a teenager everyone hung out at places of commerce; the mall, the movie theater, your local Safeway, maybe the McDonald’s. But that’s not the case as much anymore. Danah Boyd’s done a terrific job addressing this peripherally in her discussion of what kids are doing on MySpace. One of her main points is that kids these days are far more restricted in their ability to just "hang out" in physical places together. So, fewer of them meet up at the mall or at Starbucks. The restrictions, as a result, drive them to hang out virtually at a place like MySpace. While it’d be hyperbole to say that "nobody" hangs out at the mall anymore, the picture above certainly paints the situation clearly: the mall’s popularity as a social meeting place has diminished noticeably. If you could get teenagers to sit down for 2 hours to watch a movie (a topic for another post) they probably wouldn’t identify that well with Kevin Smith’s "Mallrats".
You might ask yourself, "So, why does this matter? If there are fewer mallrats, my shopping experience is faster and that’s a good thing." Well, assuming that you actually shop at malls regularly (do you?? I doubt it..) there is a reason to pause and worry about the fast lines…
We live in a consumption society.
You might abhor the thought, but stop and contemplate that for a moment. The fact of the matter is that the U.S. is driven by an overwhelming consumer passion. With very few exceptions, Americans look to shopping as a social salve. Feel down about your last relationship that went sour? Go shopping. Bored and have nothing to do? Call up a friend and head to Union Square. Haven’t purchased something in a few hours? Head to Starbucks and treat yourself to that soy chai latte, and revel in the simple pleasure of warm milk, foam and espresso.
Avoiding the discussion of whether or not this is a good thing for us, I want to suggest that this socialization begins at a very early age. The fact that we hung out with our friends at malls, supermarkets, etc was very important to our development as lifetime professional consumers. The fundamental engine of our economy is a fire within each and every one of us that is built and stoked during our most formative years. That fire exists, it smolders within the teenagers of today, inadequately fed but already powerful. But they don’t get to hang out around the commerce opportunities that we did. They’re being forced to hang out online. And yes, there is general agreement that that’s where we should advertise to them. But that’s only half of the consumption equation (you know, X+Y+Z=I bought an iPod!), if that.
The overlooked opportunity is driving that shopping activity while people are hanging out. Say you’re on MySpace with a friend, posting pictures, IM’ing back and forth, leaving messages all over the place. Where along that digital trek do you get to stop and check out a storefront? "Oh, this is so cute" your friend says, pointing out a Coach purse that you then examine and think about buying. Wait, you can’t do that right now… Why the F not?!?! Where are the innovative retailers that understand that shopping is a social activity? Consumption is driven not just by advertising, but by your peers. They give you feedback on purchases, they recommend purchases and they fundamentally give you permission to be a consumer. So, if friends are hanging out together online, why aren’t we building the shopping experiences that tie in with their social activities? It’s widely assumed that the "online shopping mall" is a done deal; that Amazon and others have sewn up this opportunity. I suggest that we remain confused about the concept and that we’re still in search of the online equivalent of the shopping mall. I would even go so far as to say that Amazon believes this too – just watch all of the Web services they’re enabling and the features they’re implementing: HIT, Product Wikis, and their Associates program come to mind.
This began as an observation of the lack of teenagers at the mall and has evolved into a bit of a bigger diatribe about the massive opportunity that retailers are currently missing out on. Perhaps it’s a lot to ask though. Can any one retailer build a mall? Maybe the question should be asked of the people aggregating the teenage consumers: MySpace, Facebook, Yahoo!, AOL, Google, MSN.. who among you is working on providing for a social shopping experience? Who among you has reached out to retailers and suggested that you can work with them to evolve the online experience and embrace the massive sales opportunities that exist in the new digital mediums. Those of us out there with the wherewithal to accomplish this should be asking ourselves, "How do we create the next generation of Mallrats?"