Hiding Out in Malls

The movie “Minority Report” pictured a future of waterlogged precogs who anticipate violent crimes, and crowded upscale malls. Looking forward to 2054, which is the more problematic possibility?
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Posted January 9, 2019

On a cold and dreary post-Christmas Saturday afternoon last month, I reacquainted myself with “Minority Report,” Steven Spielberg’s 2002 view of a world roughly 50 years in the future.

In the 17 years since the movie’s launch, some of Spielberg’s visions have arrived well ahead of schedule. We already have retinal scans and facial recognition. People read newspapers on live screens that update in real time. We have digital home movies that can be stored and uploaded on convenient devices. We can also move images around and across interactive screens with our fingers.

We don’t yet have cars that ride above the city and climb walls. But when John Anderton (Tom Cruise’s character) was fleeing the police and his car was remotely shut off, it occurred to me that certain rental companies today have that same ability when drivers of their cars speed or act erratically.

And, of course, we don’t have precogs or the ability to anticipate violent crimes and apprehend perpetrators before they perpetrate. We have enough trouble with perpetrators after the fact.

But the future-as-seen-by-Spielberg really caught this industry’s attention in 2002 with its portrayal of a retail world that can read approaching customers’ eyes and remind them of past purchases and buying habits.  

True, whenever we see annoying pop-up ads that offer items we’ve purchased or simply searched for, we’re getting close to the movie’s digital screen in the Gap store that recognized a shopper’s eyes and called out, “Hello, Mr. Yamamoto, how did those assorted tank tops work out for you?”

The word was that Spielberg did an enormous amount of research before adapting Philip K. Dick’s 1956 science-fiction story to the screen. In 1999, three years before the film rolled out, he gathered a group of experts from the worlds of architecture, computer science, biomedical research, journalism and fiction for a three-day think tank, discussing what a plausible future reality for 2054 might look like. He also talked to retailers, asking them to imagine a future of their industry that they’d like to see emerge from the collision of technology, culture and media.

In that respect, though, Spielberg – and perhaps those retailers he talked to – got one thing astonishingly wrong. The film portrayed a thriving world in 2054 of crowded malls, which in 2002 had still been the obvious place for consumers to gather. .

The upscale urban mall that John Anderton fled to featured sleek post-post-modern architecture and a Billie Holiday/Duke Ellington soundtrack. It also featured mobs of shoppers, so Anderton could blend in and hide. In 2002, there were a lot of those centers of retail.

The Gap was still the darling of the industry, expanding all over the world, enjoying tremendous success with all three of its divisions (Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic). They filled America’s enclosed malls, strip centers and lifestyle centers, along with J.Crew, The Limited, Aeropostale, Victoria’s Secret, Forever 21, Bath & Body Works, Brookstone, Nine West, Payless Shoe Source, BCBG, Wet Seal, American Apparel, Sam Goody, Doubleday Books, Toys “R” Us, Borders, Sears, RadioShack, Incredible Universe – it was still “the malling of America,” and we were building anywhere from 60 to more than 100 400,000-square-foot malls a year throughout the 1990s. Where else would shoppers browse? On their home computers? That was only slightly less ridiculous than saying “on their phones.”

Even in 2003, the year after “Minority Report” opened, malls and shopping centers accounted for about 76 percent of all non-automotive retail sales in the U.S.

I know, there are still thriving malls. (Traffic around Louisville’s two upscale fashion malls was impossible in December.) But those are anomalies or holiday phenomena, whereas Spielberg expected them to remain year-round retail mainstays. And this was the same guy who, just a year earlier, had introduced us to the futuristic idea of artificial intelligence. (If AI, why not precognition?)

Who knows what the next 35 years will deliver? But, at least as far as 2019 goes, a John Anderton running from the police would have better luck blending into an Apple store filled with brand-loyal apple seeds – although early headlines from 2019 might begin to question whether even Apple will remain a crowded hiding place from the pre-crime police.

As a journalist, writer, editor and commentator, Steve Kaufman has been watching the store design industry for 20-plus years. He has seen the business cycle through retailtainment, minimalism, category killers, big boxes, pop-ups, custom stores, global roll-outs, international sourcing, interactive kiosks, the emergence of China, the various definitions of “branding” and Amazon.com. He has reported on the rise of brand concept shops, the demise of brand concept shops and the resurgence of brand concept shops. He has been an eyewitness to the reality that nothing stays the same, except the retailer-shopper relationship.