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Mall's new scent: Cinnabon-infused desperation

By Petula Dvorak
Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The shopping mall can be a scary place to roam these days.

The makeup women in those fake lab coats lock in on me like the Death Star's tractor beam. I avoid eye contact.

The Dead Sea salts guy keeps trying to put lotion on me. I duck and dodge.

Nope, I don't want to taste bourbon chicken. Not in a box, not with a fox. I do not like bourbon chicken, Sam I Am.

Sorry, my boys are running away from me, I don't have time to check out your new frangipani hand mousse.

Stickers? Balloons? Well, okay, my kids will take 20.

This is not the mall I know. And I'm not alone in noticing.

"It's the recession. I've never seen anything like it," said Kelly Simmons, a Gaithersburg nurse who chased her 19-month-old through Montgomery Mall last week as she herself was chased by salespeople.

"In the past, in Nordstrom, they totally ignored me, figured I didn't have the money to spend," she said, pointing to her decidedly leave-me-alone-I'm-hanging-in-my-sweats look. (Turns out she's a fellow West Coast native; I get it.) "Now I walk in, and they won't leave me alone."

Going to a suburban shopping mall these days feels an awful lot like visiting a haggling, freewheeling, exotic marketplace where you get stalked by hawkers and attacked by barkers. Minus the international charm.

On a stroll through just about any shiny hall of an American mall, under the atrium and up the escalator, you will be faced with offers of stickers, coupons, samples and demonstrations of the magical powers of an array of goofy products.

The desperation of retailers is heavy in the air, and it is changing the shopping experience.

In our youth, the mall was a place to hang out. It was less about Miller's Outpost and more about getting Bobby Miller's phone number. Disaffected youths snapping gum and reapplying eyeliner behind the counter of Chess King didn't really care whether they made a sale -- they were there for a paycheck and maybe some phone numbers of their own, baby.

Strolling into a store to browse and socialize, unfettered, was a part of American culture. Once I didn't need a place to hang out, I stopped going to the mall.

But as a parent, I return to this Cinnabon-scented world, thankful that the kiddie haircut place, the shoe place that carries extra-wide kicks for my boy's Flintstone feet and a good noodle soup are close together. And in our regular treks to get all those errands out of the way in one place, I was struck by the new marketing assault.

I'm guessing that thanks to the tanking economy, the after-school mall-clerk gig has turned into a crash course in carnival-style sales. I checked in with a marketing professor to make sure it wasn't just me.

"I've observed it, certainly," said Janet Wagner, associate chair of the marketing department at the University of Maryland. "Consumer spending is really depressed right now, [and] it hasn't begun to rebound. They want people to go into the store, buy more than they want."

She, too, thinks it's a fundamental change in the way America shops, and it might not go away once the recession is over. "I'm pretty sure it's a real shift," Wagner said. "The question is, when does it end? What is next?"

It's not just in the Washington region. The trend toward relentless marketing is happening across the country.

"You are seeing much more retailers encouraging their retail staff to get out, talk, get people to come in," Malachy Kavanagh, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers, said as he called me on his trip to Chicago.

"I took a walk on Michigan Avenue and noticed a difference," Kavanagh said. "They had their sales staff out on the floor. They, too, have gotten aggressive on the streetscape."

If the big corporate chain stores try to seduce me with barkers and samples, fine. Hawking is part of the culture in lots of places I've visited -- and enjoyed -- overseas.

I loved the dukkah spice mix that the spice man rubbed between his fingers, enticing me to buy some at an Egyptian souk; the bargaining and haggling that got me two (yes, overpriced) paintings from a Mongolian artist in China who followed me for two blocks; and the wool scarves I bought after a babushka wrapped them around me while I strolled past her on Arbat Street in Moscow.

But let's take it all the way: I'll take the marketing, but you let me haggle. It's tough times for me, too, you know.

Tiny sneakers with light-up soles? Okay, but throw in a brick of tube socks.

A purple cellphone case? Maybe if you throw in new earbuds.

How about a bonus lipstick in a color I would actually wear, along with that face powder?

But I still could not, would not buy that bourbon chicken. Got a deal on noodle soup?

E-mail me with your tales from the mall at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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