You are here
It’s a mall world after all for five SN&R scribes who braved teeny-bop takeover, bipolar beasts and suburban squareness to learn what and why we buy
Good investigative reporters willingly throw themselves into danger zones for the edification of their readers. At SN&R, we’re no different. Our writers went to not one but five area malls during the busiest, most stressful shopping time of the year to find out what Sacramentans are buying and how they hope their purchases will change their lives.
In one week this December, we witnessed beauty, beasts and butts at the Westfield Galleria at Roseville, and peered into the curiously secret world of little girls’ fashion at Claire’s in Downtown Plaza. We sipped an Orange Julius while exploring the economics of Sunrise Mall and spied on luxury shopping sprees at Pavilions. Finally exhausted, we collapsed onto a bench in Arden Fair to reminisce about sweet holiday memories and interview families about gift giving.
So grab a Cinnabon and read on for tales from the mall, where presents are found, fortunes are spent and the Muzak never stops.
Beauty and the beast
Galleria at Roseville
“imma man but half BEAST yall choose which one I be”
—Facebook status update by Alexander Piggee two weeks before allegedly setting fire to the Galleria at Roseville
Northern California’s most popular mall, the Westfield Galleria at Roseville, doesn’t truly get busy until church lets out on Sunday. It’s holy holiday gridlock, and traffic this December afternoon extends for blocks, if not a mile.
Surfing on the iPhone while the car idles, I bone up on the Galleria: The 1.3 million-square-foot ode to consumerism cost nearly a billion dollars to erect, “wendy r.” is its Foursquare mayor, and there’s a holiday-time mall event with the unfortunate name Jingle Balls. I also discover a Facebook page called “I’m pissed about The Great Roseville Galleria Fire of 2010,” which boasts an impressive 9,969 fans.
This isn’t surprising. Almost every modern society has a mall. A bazaar or centre commercial or mo-ru. Although some Americans, especially Californians, reject the shopping mall as a microcosm of U.S. cultural zeitgeist, malls are our 21st-century town halls. Young and old, black and white, gay and straight. Jewelry and iPads and Dave the Funky Monkey. And ample, boundless parking. Is there a place that better classifies America’s people, pastimes and priorities?
As the Galleria at Roseville billboards avow: It’s my mall.
Alexander Piggee wasn’t too bright, but he understood this when he arrived at the Galleria on a warm Thursday morning in October. A troubled 23-year-old, Piggee was a kid who, according to his Facebook profile, often ended the day strung out on OxyContin. And alone. His status updates read like cries for help. In one, he confesses to being “BI-POLAR.”
One of Piggee’s final posts on October 14, reads: “HOPE YOU YALL PAID ATTENTION BECAUSE TONIGHT IM CHOOSING TO BE THE BEAST.”
It was the beast who lurked through the mall on October 21, wearing a black hooded sweatshirt, dark-blue jeans and a purple T-shirt with the words “Pretty Boy” written in graffiti-style on the front. The beast entered GameStop just after 10 a.m. and allegedly ignited a small blaze in the back room after scaring off employees with a bomb threat.
Around noon that day, my mom texted a photo of towering smoke erupting into the Roseville sky. She was on the way to the Galleria, only to discover that the mall had been torched and the entire place was evacuated and shut down. One boorish if not brazen Twitter user referred to the event as “Roseville’s 9/11.” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger even declared a state of emergency.
If every rose has its thorn, then Roseville’s thorn was a little Piggee.
Months later, the Galleria has done a notable job masking the rampage. Giant walls have been erected where shoppers once entered the now-scorched and still-under-construction parts of the mall. Painted on the towering partition are quotations from shoppers: “5 years ago I went on my first date here. Now, 5 years later, I am married to him.” Or, “It’s our town square where we gather for fun and brings the community together.”
And, “It’s my mall.”
Burberry, Louis Vuitton, Apple Store, H&M—people, even suburban choral “flash mobs” converge on the Galleria from as far away as Redding and Nevada. This is why today, Sunday, traffic controllers brandish neon wands and usher cars to parking garages. Spots are few. And be careful texting while walking, lest ye be crushed by a Tundra, Odyssey, Expedition or other four-wheeled wildlife.
Inside the Galleria, a mechanical helicopter whirs above shoppers in a rotunda near J. Crew, which, like dozens of shops, is still shuttered due to the fire. At the Nintendo kiosk, five kids shimmy to a Wii dance game. A blonde sporting a white Chris Webber jersey clings to her boyfriend, who looks like the chubby guy in ’N Sync.
Lush fabrics are popular this season. Female shoppers sport velour Juicy Couture track suits with ass cracks sneaking a peek. A mannequin at Hugo Boss sports a magenta velvet blazer, something the Joker might wear. Or Mark S. Allen.
A lot of women dress like their daughters. Low-cut jeans, tight tops and heels—from behind they all look the same. Single men, whether preying on ladies or not, stand out like sore-thumb lurkers.
Quotations about roses (because it’s Roseville, get it?) decorate the mall. One quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the transcendentalist who probably wouldn’t be caught dead in a shopping mall, stands out: “The mind does not create what it perceives, any more than the eye creates the rose.”
The Galleria is a remarkable but divisive mecca. Many admire its beauty. Others reject its superficiality. And some, they’re just beasts.
“If you want your story,” the Claire’s sales clerk said into the phone, her chipper customer-service tone momentarily deepening into a conspiratorial whisper, “come here Saturday at 2 and just watch.”
It was a last-ditch concession from a retail worker caught between two conflicting company directives: Always help callers and never grant interviews to the media.
She told me Claire’s, the kids’ costume-jewelry mecca on the first floor of Downtown Plaza, was busiest on Saturday afternoons. She warned me I couldn’t talk to any employees on the record. “Company policy.” She promised to give my number to her manager, but informed me I wouldn’t get anywhere. “You know, chain of command.” She sounded harried. School had just gotten out and she was working alone. “I’m dealing with little-girl chaos right now,” she said.
I thanked her profusely. In a week of seeking interviews from employees of the most popular fashion-accessories stores in Sacramento, our two-minute conversation was the longest I’d had.
There are eight Claire’s in the Sacramento area and four affiliate Icing stores. (Claire’s official mission statement is to be the fashion authority for “tweens and teens between 7 and 18.” Icing, with its oversized handbags and rhinestone flasks, is focused on a much narrower target demographic as “the it store for the 23-year-old young woman.”)
It’s hard to spot a little girl in the Capital City without some Claire’s merchandise affixed to her—be it a BFF charm bracelet, a glitter headband or a smear of candy-scented lip gloss. If girls register online for Claire’s Secret Santa Circles, the store automatically e-mails their wish lists to friends and families. Tweens virtually shop at Claire’s inside the popular Bratz dolls video games. Some parents use Claire’s as a behavior-modification motivator, since today’s young ladies have a Pavlovian response to pastel nail polish and mood rings.
Claire’s youthful, sunny image clashes with its apparent media-relations blackout. The company’s website states: “We are unable to grant individual requests for information.” Calls to the national office were unreturned. After my conversation with the Downtown Plaza Claire’s sales clerk, I received a voice mail from the store manager declining further contact. What had started as a cute, holiday-shopping story was proving harder to crack than a government scandal.
That might be because Claire’s has attracted government scandal as of late. The chain has had three voluntary product recalls with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission since 2007 for jewelry containing high levels of lead. In May, the company issued a statement assuring customers it had implemented a stricter product-testing regimen, but the October issue of Consumer Reports highlighted a Claire’s cell-phone charm containing worrisome amounts of lead in an exposé on dangerous children’s toys.
None of this has slowed the growth of Claire’s nation. Claire’s Stores Inc. reported $1.3 billion in net sales in 2009, and its profits have risen annually throughout America’s recession. The company operates 2,971 stores throughout America and Europe, plus another 398 franchises in international locales including the Middle East, Japan, South Africa and Guatemala. The trendsetting store is itself a trend, uniting the world’s children in a love of sparkly trinkets and bows.
At 2 p.m. on a recent Saturday, I joined the worldwide movement by accepting a shopping basket from a rhinestone-bedecked teenager in the Downtown Plaza store.
For a woman of my age—35, the same age as the Claire’s chain—walking into Claire’s is being forced to confront every fashion trend I ever attempted. The walls are covered with jelly bracelets, fingerless lace gloves, spiked wrist cuffs, leg warmers, peace-sign headbands and raver fairy wings—all begging the question, “What in the name of conformity ever made me think that was cool?”
Other shoppers exhibited no such fashion remorse. Teenage girls ricocheted through the aisles, pronouncing hats and gloves “fugly” and daring each other to wear them. Two middle-aged ladies studied a rack of Glee merchandise with bewildered expressions. “Which one is Finn?” one asked the other. “She likes Finn.”
A teenage girl in a black hoodie studied a rotating rack of belly rings. “Which one do you like, Chris?”
“Dunno,” Chris grunted, shrugging inside his Kings jersey without glancing up from his phone.
“Look! There’s a ton more on the other side!” The girl spun the rack as Chris emitted an audible sigh and sat on the floor in defeat.
I was ready to join him. I felt exhausted by the bright lights and overstocked shelves shedding hair extensions and lip-gloss tubes as I squeezed past. The magic of Claire’s was lost on me. Clearly, I needed help.
I returned days later with a friend’s 6-year-old daughter in tow. She literally jumped with excitement as we entered the store. She didn’t see cheap, recycled trends. To her young eyes, Claire’s was all sparkle and possibility.
She chose a rhinestone tiara, crowned herself and walked the aisles with newfound regality—another empowered citizen of Claire’s nation, claiming her world.
Just don’t talk about money
There is mass unemployment and increasing poverty nationwide, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at Pavilions shopping center. Festooned with expensive Christmas décor, the parking lot filled with SUVs and European cars, Pavilions is where you come to be comfortable and spend a lot. The center has a few restaurants, like Ruth’s Chris Steak House, and about 30 shops, including large chains like Talbot’s and local boutiques. It’s no secret Pavilions’ main demographic is people with large expendable incomes—or is it? As this reporter learned on a recent Friday afternoon, it seems the first rule of serving the upper-middle class is to not talk about the upper-middle class.
Michelle Vu, 22, a well-manicured employee at Madam Butterfly clothing boutique, did not think it appropriate to discuss what her customers spend. “Oh, I don’t think I can divulge that information,” Vu said.
A quick look around the store revealed cheaper items, like scarves, sold for about $50, while a rabbit-fur jacket ran $696. Other items included a $288 rabbit- and raccoon-fur vest (which, according to Vu, has been very popular), a cotton T-shirt for $125 and a soft-pink blouse with diamond sequins for $295.
A few middle-aged women wandered in and left without purchasing anything, despite the festive crooning of Harry Connick Jr. Another woman, however, spent $485 on what she told Vu was a gift for someone.
At Pavilions’ popular Ruth’s Chris Steak House, server Michelle Cardelli, 27, also thought it inappropriate to discuss what customers tipped. “It’s company policy that we don’t talk about that stuff. I mean, it’s kind of uncouth,” Cardelli said.
There was at least one employee willing to discuss money. Denise Ivy, 21, at the temporary Brookstone store, said customers typically spent between $10 and $300.
“It’s been steady, but not busy. It’s kind of a high-class shopping center, so there’s not a lot of foot traffic here,” Ivy said. Ivy makes $9 per hour as a temporary employee until the holiday shopping season is over, and then will become unemployed. “I couldn’t afford to shop here,” Ivy said.
Why was she willing to discuss what seemed to be a taboo subject?
“I never thought money was something I shouldn’t talk about, and even if someone told me I couldn’t, I still would,” Ivy said.
The staff at Julius, a high-end clothing store, admitted their prices are steep but justified them based on quality. “We are not overpriced, we just carry the very best,” said Pat Brousseau, a Julius associate for 38 years. “No one wants to spend $1,000 on a sweater and wear it only one season.”
Eager to demonstrate the quality of the merchandise, Brousseau laid several pieces out. A leather jacket for $2,795 was not as nice as another one sold for only $1,395, according to Brousseau. A men’s angora jacket cost $1,195 and a cashmere sweater was $825. The prices in the women’s department were comparable. A Donna Karan cashmere sweater was $450, an Armani jacket was $1,595 and a bright fuchsia cashmere scarf ran $595. The store was empty, but staff said there was a rush earlier in the day.
“We’re considered a luxury store, and that’s not a bad word,” Brousseau said.
The women’s clothing at two other stores, Chico’s and Talbots, seemed bargain cheap next to Julius. Sweaters and blouses ranged from $50 to $100, with more formal dresses and jackets at around $150. Both stores were busier than the others, with between five and 10 shoppers each.
Despite the recession, the staff at Pavilions was not particularly worried about business.
“Because this is a boutique that has been around for 30 years, it is different. People have been shopping here since they were young. I don’t feel the recession has hit us as hard,” Vu said of Madam Butterfly.
Madam Butterfly co-owner Allie Masunaga said that, like most businesses, it has been a little quieter, but they were not concerned. “We still carry nice items like always and just added a few cheaper things,” Masunaga said.
At Julius, the amount people spend has changed since 2007, but people are still buying. “There is obviously a change in spending habits, but we try to stay positive about what is happening. A lot of customers at this level don’t really have needs. We offer wants,” Brousseau said.
The land that Pottery Barn forgot
Despite two rounds of cosmetic work in the past 11 years, Sunrise Mall recalls the easy-listening decade in which it was built. It’s comforting, the squareness of it all, a throwback to times when bored suburbanites flocked to malls to eat up a listless weekend afternoon, departing with an Orange Julius and new pair of perfectly acceptable jeans.
But a lot has changed since 1972, the year the mall opened. Citrus Heights has become a city, incorporating in 1997 and looking to the mall’s sales-tax dollars to underpin the local economy. For another thing, glitzier shopping malls like Arden Fair and Galleria at Roseville boast big-name draws like Apple, Banana Republic and Pottery Barn. By comparison, the most recognizable new tenant Sunrise Mall has added in recent years is Subway.
Still, the mall performs reliably in the local economy, generating more than $1.5 million in sales-tax revenues last year. Together with the Marketplace at Birdcage across the street, this four-block retail area along Sunrise Boulevard generates slightly less than half the sales-tax dollars the city collects each year, said Citrus Heights City Manager Henry Tingle. “That’s why we spend a lot of attention keeping it up.”
City and mall officials cite customer loyalty and easy access as reasons for the mall’s steady performance. The October fire at the Galleria at Roseville resulted in a “measurable increase” of customers at Sunrise, said Tingle, though Sunrise Mall marketing director Vickie Sherman downplayed the impact. “While the Galleria has had some impact on Sunrise Mall’s performance recently, our sales increases were in line with what the National Retail Federation and the International Council of Shopping Centers were predicting.”
Whatever’s attracting new shoppers, Tingle said the trick is to retain them.
“We hope people who haven’t seen our mall in a number of years will come back,” he said.
If those customers are anything like American River College students Savannah Kiddie and Tyrie Scott, that might be easier said than done. On a placid Tuesday afternoon in early December, the two 19-year-olds were slumped on a couch in a quiet wing outside United Artists Theatres and the entrance to Sears. Bagless and weary-looking, Kiddie said she normally frequents Arden Fair, while Scott is a Stockton resident making his first visit. Neither was impressed.
“It sucks. It’s boring. There’s no stores here,” Kiddie said in a rat-a-tat deadpan. “The only good thing is the movies.”
On this particular day, there was no traffic in the popcorn-scented theaters, except for a woman in a Santa hat handing out fliers, and a father and young son debating whether to enter. The theater was playing three animated flicks, a teen comedy and crime drama, all second-run films trying not to wear out their theatrical welcomes. Greg, a soft-faced UA employee, stood at the entrance of an empty concession area and claimed they haven’t. He said the discount movies, which run between $3.50 and $3.75 a ticket, draw customers of all ages on Fridays and Saturdays.
That same resoluteness permeated the rest of the mall, with no one crying foul because of a bum economy.
“It’s not too bad this year, but it’s a little slow,” said Adrian Kunselman, manager of a Coffee Plus kiosk near the entrance of JCPenney. Trafficking in one of the shopping season’s most desired commodities—caffeine—the sable-haired Kunselman spends each day unintentionally taking the pulse of the city’s retail anchor. “During the day, it’s a lot of old people and moms,” she remarked.
According to Sherman, whoever’s visiting the mall is buying. “This is the busiest holiday season Sunrise Mall has seen in the past few years,” she said. “Early sales results are showing up to double-digit increases, and we have plenty of convenient parking.”
She also defends the mall’s array of stores, which include teen draws like Vans, Hot Topic and American Eagle. Plans for a delayed mall expansion could be submitted some time next year, though there’s no telling which tenants mall operators might pursue.
In its current state, one can debate whether the 1.2 million-square-foot “super regional shopping center” is all that super, and if it has regional appeal. Store vacancies were being filled this holiday season with temporary tenants like Hickory Farms and Toys “R” Us Express.
“I would say its image has changed as its stores have changed, but its role is still (as) a steadfast catalyst for local revenue generated by a steady clientele,” said Citrus Heights Councilman Jeff Slowey.
For her part, Kiddie says she won’t be back until Sunrise adds a second story.
My grandfather’s voice
I was raised by my beautiful grandparents. My grandma was a thrifty free spirit; my grandpa a hard-ass, penny-pinching Portuguese. My grandpa grew up poor. He told me how he would watch wealthy kids enjoy their popcorn and snow cones while he would eat a piece of bread imagining it was such delights.
“The smell is all you need,” he’d say. “It’s all in your head.”
Grandpa’s worked since he was 7 years old, doing everything from shoveling horse manure to renovating Midtown buildings. Don’t feel bad for him, though, because he used to be a street fighter and he doesn’t take well to pity. My grandpa grew into the hardest-working man I know, eventually buying his own damned popcorn and snow-cone machines so my gang of cousins and I could have what he’d gone without.
He made a point to not give into consumerism and the idea that materialistic items define a person. When Christmas rolled around, he would pop some corn and lovingly shovel it into individual paper sacks that would become soaked in butter stains. Every year, we’d eat the kernels of love. Every year, he would yell at us—in the most endearing way possible—for leaving trails throughout the house and for laughing at my grandma, who always chokes on popcorn. That was grandpa’s holiday token of love, and you better have been oozing appreciation.
When I go shopping, my grandpa’s voice pops into my head. It’s a breakdown of items and hours and consumerism conspiracy theories. “How much was that? Do you realize how many hours of your life you sacrificed to buy that one article of clothing? The bastard system.”
Wondering through Arden Fair mall on a rainy Saturday in December made me dizzy. There were hoards of people—parents and children—spending hoards of hard-earned money. I wondered what the hell these people were buying, and why they felt their purchases were worthy of their hard-earned paper.
My name is Alia, and I am turning into my grandfather.
Amongst the sea of angsty babies waiting to see Santa, I came across Gabriella Rodriguez and her adorable two young daughters. One sobbed and sipped a smoothie while the other, Miranda, was excited to talk about Daddy’s new car.
Gabriella clutched a large bag. “Macy’s is having a really great sale,” she said. Presents make her girls happy, and she thinks the excitement of present giving is well worth the money.
“What’s so cool about Christmas?” I asked Miranda.
“Pres—God was born,” she responded. Her mom was so proud.
Thirty minutes later, I was yelled at by a young woman with a distasteful attitude rushing into the Vans store: “Move the fuck out of the way or choose a fucking side!” People radiate kindness during the holidays.
I decided it was break time and sat at a bench across from two dads. They had both been sitting in the middle of the Christmas-tinged mall for hours while their daughters shopped. I couldn’t even imagine my grandfather in their place.
Paul Apollo of Fiji is a proud papa of six. He’s a recently laid-off banker who prefers the simpler things in life. For the Apollos, the holidays mean sitting around for hours playing guitar and connecting.
His teen daughters rushed over to him, “Dad, there’s a Raiders cheerleader upstairs!”
He seemed annoyed. “What the hell? Who cares? Go shop!”
His daughters don’t have jobs, but use a combination of saved allowance and school money for their shopping trip. “I tell them: If it’s yours, spend it. If it’s mine, don’t touch it,” Apollo said.
Don’t let Apollo fool you. He’s a softy. He recently bought cell phones for all of his kids and ended up with a bill over a grand. “I just wanted to please my kids. Stuff like this makes kids happy,” he said. “This is just how it is in America.”
Roy Siegfried of Grass Valley also has a couple of daughters.
He enjoys buying his girls things. “It’s natural to want to give your kids more than you had,” he said. “See, the problem is that the media tries to scare consumers. Holiday gifts are gifts from the heart.”
Most of these parents held the belief that their children were immune from the evil grasp of consumer culture and its hyperactivity during the holiday season. Both fathers said the same thing when asked if they thought their kids were developing poor spending habits: “My kids have a good head on their shoulders. They are smarter than that.”
Being raised by my grandfather, who am I to say? Maybe they are.