Spend, spend, spend some time at the mall

By Michele Hewitson

By MICHELE HEWITSON

The man at the mall who makes the helicopter fly pulls the string and zing, off it goes, above the tilted heads of the shoppers. The heads follow it up and back down. It is a simple entertainment which makes people open their mouths in wide smiles and is designed to make you open your wallet.

Leo is the man selling the Zoomcopter. He pulls the string, he shrugs, anywhere between 3000 and 4000 times a day, seven days a week. He is a laconic sort of salesman.

Isn't it boring? Shrug. "Sometimes. It's like any other job."

He doesn't need a pitch: the amazing, returning copter sells itself.

There is plenty of competition. Inside Westfield's biggest mall, St Lukes, on a Friday afternoon it is already Christmas. You could buy a singing, dancing Santa for $30. You could spend $295 on a Christmas tree with fibre optic branches which change colour. A burly firefighter's calendar for $10, proceeds to child cancer research, is being sold by a very unburly firefighter.

You could say sod the season and indulge yourself instead: get your nails done. Have a massage at the Golden Sails Massage Centre where "Health is Wealth!"

You can arrange to meet your rellies via the Keep In Touch gadget which allows Tracey Thompson to hold up Charlotte to wave so that Nana in South City mall in Christchurch can wave right back.

Last December one million people tramped through St Lukes. This year the holiday visitors will be a sizeable slice of the 9 million, including repeat offenders, expected over the whole year.

They will lose their kids. (Actually, says Richard the security guy, it's more often the parents who manage to get lost.) They will lose their cars. Occasionally someone will leave a panting dog in a hot car (staff call the SPCA). They will go to customer services and demand an ATM right here.

What people mostly complain about - and what the retailers mostly complain about - is the air-conditioning.

Some people come here for fun. "To get out of the house," say the elderly couple in the food hall. Says Donna: "I don't know why we come to this place. It's bloody hell."

Shilpa and Sanjay think it's heaven. They love the vegetable curry and they love the people-watching. This weekend they came both days.

T HE shoppers are the transients. The staff are the permanent residents. All 1200-plus of the retail workers, the 13 cleaners during the day, the extra cleaners who come in after the centre closes. And at Christmas: the roving ambassadors, gift wrappers, car park courtesy crew and the security staff, whose numbers you are not allowed to know. The security guys are supposed to blend in: they don't wear uniforms but they do wear earpieces.

You're meant to believe, I think, that there are hundreds of them. But they, like all the staff, are known by their first names and encouraged to regard the mall as a home away from home.

On Sunday I wander around with Richard, the security guy who has earlier dealt with a shoplifter at Pumpkin Patch.

He picks up paper cups, cans and a pile of discarded boxes. He finds a lost trolley and pushes it through the mall to return it to its rightful place outside. While he's there, he tidies the trolley queue. "It's not a good look. I work here."

The mall is your friend. In May, when Westfield wanted to tell you about St Lukes' $55 million renovation it used "fringe celebrity" Pieta Keating in its advertising.

Keating, TV2's "outdoors girl" on DIY Rescue and a Treasure Island contestant is, says marketing manager Karlee Hollingsworth, "a great-looking girl but she's not going to overwhelm you. You'll feel comfortable with her".

It didn't want a super-celeb. Malls, and definitely malls in the Mt Albert catchment area, are not super-celeb sort of places.

They are Prime Minister sorts of places. At least that is what Westfield NZ director, John Widdup, claimed when the PM opened the expanded St Lukes. "This is the PM's mall," said Widdup.

It is not, these days, the teenager's hang-out. It is not so cool, apparently, to hang out with your mates at the mall. Nobody told Sarah and Sarah and Amanda. They are in their late teens and this is where they come, all dressed up, on a Sunday to socialise and spend, for a couple of hours.

They like "the couches". Nobody told them that the couches - St Lukes hesitates to call them rest stops - are really in response to the needs of the burgeoning "senior population". Westfield takes demographics seriously.

When you come to the mall you are expected to behave yourself. It is not a public place, although it promotes itself as the "new community village green".

In September 2001 at Westfield mall in Hornsby, Australia, a schoolteacher says she was told by security guards that her skirt was too short and it was offensive. She is now suing Westfield for false imprisonment, slander and defamation.

Westfield had countered that the company was being used by the schoolteacher to promote her modelling and advertising business.

All of which sounds like a story which should be set in the fictional Fountaingate so beloved of television's favourite Aussie slappers, Kath and Kim.

There is no dress code at St Lukes, "other than normal public decency laws".

You can be issued with a trespass notice for "shoplifting, that'll normally do it", says Richard.

For being a "pest", for drinking, for taking photos without permission. At the Keep In Touch machine the sign warns that "loud and abusive behaviour may result in you being fined or banned from the premises".

You are likely to get a tap on the shoulder if you go around handing out political leaflets but "politicians are welcome to shop in our centres," said the PR co-ordinator in response to a query about whether politicians can flog their wares at the mall.

At the mall, you see, everyone is equal.

The smell of the mall is McDonald's, KFC, noodles and the free perfume sprays from the pharmacies.

Consume, consume, consume is the unwritten mantra.

Those who are not eating at the food hall are eating and drinking on the run: they roam the mall slurping on ice cream or shakes or juice.

The toddler safely trapped in the supermarket trolley is stuffing his face with chocolate. He chucks the wrapper on the floor. It won't be there long. At Westfield all staff from the CEO to the marketing manager to the security guys pick up rubbish.

The CEO hasn't been in the ladies' toilets for a while this Friday afternoon. The floor is awash with sodden paper towels and, for some unknown reason, the ends of toilet rolls. But the cleaner is already there. People are messy, aren't they. She laughs joylessly and says "Ha. Yes, they are."

That screaming sound you hear is coming from Rod Marler. Marler is Westfield NZ's general manager of design and he has absolutely forbidden the use of the word "mall".

"Mall's a filthy word. It's awful. It just has very bad connotations. It's bland, sameness. It's acres of terrazzo."

There are acres of terrazzo at St Lukes: 33,680 sq m of lettable space. And outside there are acres of concrete: more than 2000 parking spaces.

St Lukes - Marler would like us to call it the Centre "with a capital C" - is not made for admiring from the outside. "As a piece of architecture," says Marler, "it's a very bland building, and it really is very internalised."

Visit the mall (oops) at seven in the evening of a normal trading Saturday (tonight it's open until 10pm for Christmas shoppers) and it is roped off. Foodtown is open for another hour but it's difficult to find your way in.

At the taxi rank are two angry women: they've been waiting over an hour for a taxi. A small boy pees in the bushes. His mother rolls her eyes.

At the other end of the mall the cinemas are open and you can get a drink at Mad Dogs and Englishmen.

But at this end, the mall is sleeping. If you are a retailer you have to be up and at 'em at 9am on the dot. The first thing the duty manager does - after turning on the muzak - is take to the terrazzo to make sure the grilles are up and the tills turned on.

There are often, says Garth Voigt, Sunday's duty manager, people waiting outside. This is not as loopy as it might sound.

As Marler says, at St Lukes parking is an issue. "I think a lot of people who think about going to St Lukes think: traffic problems."

St Lukes is Westfield's flagship centre. But despite that $55 million spent expanding and renovating, it is already something of a dinosaur at the grand age of 32.

When it opened in 1971, 100,000 people flocked to its opening day. Shopping Centre Has Many Amenities, announced one particularly racy headline.

But Marler says our relationships with the internalised centre has changed. "Initially they were embraced. They were new and exciting. We felt like we had joined the rest of the world." Over the years "they developed the sameness and everyone became a bit blase."

The move in retail is "back to the future. But it's a matter of picking out the best of the elements. We're saying: let's pick out some of the good things about the high street environment".

Which means "an extension of an internal space to the exterior". Mall talk, or Centre talk, has its own language.

The all-weather, controlled environment where "regardless of the time of day, whether it was the weekend or week, hot or cold" is out of date.

As is what Marler calls the "weakness of branding everything under the Westfield banner. We have to go to additional lengths to give the centres a point of difference".

Westfield folk get quite sniffy when you suggest that its mall is a machine for eating money. I can't think why, when it boasts that last year's annual turnover was around $257 million.

That is not its purpose, says Marler, "the purpose is fulfilling a need. It's a meeting place. It's a place to socialise".

He does not hang out at the mall, because, he snorts, "I'm not 16 any more".

At this time of year, someone who does have to hang out at the mall is Santa.

We watch from above as he's all but buried in a pile of girls from the Owairaka School choir.

I'm sure he'd like to make a complaint: about the air-conditioning.

He looks hot. But, like the mall, he puts on his bright face. He is your friend.

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