Laurence Fournier

Working in a Fishbowl: An Ethnographic Experiment on Mall Culture

Part 1: the facts

            The mall in question is situated between the suburbs and the city core, bringing in a crowd from both areas of town. The pseudo-suburban setting attracts families with kids. Most of the clientele are younger families, but older parents with teenage or adult children can also be seen shopping here.  

            Every store is designed to bring in a specific crowd. Health and lifestyle stores typically bring in women between the ages of 26-55, but women younger and older than that do shop in the store as well. Men also sometimes come into the lifestyle store, but tend to gravitate in larger numbers toward gaming, electronic, and sports stores. The youth or teens tend to go to clothing stores, particularly the popular and cheaper brands. There are a few children oriented stores, which mainly sell clothing; many mothers shop there and can be seen carrying bags from these stores.

            The food court is a strange beast, as it is completely open and welcomes every demographic, but at the same time, clearly has a specific order to things. Patrons sit close to where they purchased their food. One does not typically see patrons wandering around, looking for the best seat; rather, they tend to find a seat quickly. Though there are tables for pairs, often two people will sit at a table for four. Even those who sit alone might claim a table that seats four. Sitting too close to another group means exchanging glances with other people—a prospect not everyone likes. Sharing tables with a stranger is completely out of the question, unheard of at this mall.

            The mall staff navigate the building differently. When they shop, they first let the salesperson know where they work. There is a mall discount that only the staff and retailers know about. Talks about each other’s day or store experience is often a hot topic. Staff tend to talk to other staff in the way they would to an acquaintance or friend, even when they are at these stores as customers.

            Walking around the mall is treacherous business. On a slow day minimal maneuvering will be required. On “game” days, however, one must constantly be on the lookout for baby strollers, speeding children, and whoever else one might bump into around the corner of the escalator or booth. Often, families and groups walk in a line side-by-side, which allows the group to walk, talk, and make eye contact, but also becomes another obstacle to walk around. The elevators are often taken up by those who are mobility-impaired, or those with baby strollers. On “game” days, the crowd around the elevators can block large parts of the walkway. Judgement is cast on those who are apparently in good health who use the elevator. An older woman once told a teenaged girl that she was just being lazy and taking up valuable space.

            Teenagers seem to be a point of interest, or hate, for many. Many teens travel in packs, side-by-side, taking up space while walking. Staff do not like talking to teens under the assumption that they will not purchase anything. Many staff get worried when teens enter their store, as most, or at least the ones complained about, tend to be loud and obnoxious. An infamous incident at the lifestyle store previously mentioned involves a young boy, around 11-13, sucking on the products and then riding off on his bike. Said story is shared frequently, and talked about more than any other incident.


Part 2: the experience

            I speed-walk from the bus stop as I get to work. I enter the mall through one of the biggest stores in the building, walking past the sales that always seem to be happening, despite the “seasonal” posters hung about.

            I walk into the center of the mall now. It’s a Monday, but due to the statutory holiday, the mall is packed. Typically, on Mondays I can walk straight to my store, maneuvering around a few mall-walkers and the pop-up booths, but today my trek requires much more agility and attention. It is not as bad as a “game” day though, where baby strollers, running toddlers, and groups of four or more walking side-by-side make the mall feel like the set for the show “American Ninja Warrior.”

            I get to work early and have time to buy myself a coffee. The coffee shops in the mall do not offer a discount for other mall employees, which seems unfair since their baristas get one in my store. I maneuver a bit more and get to the coffee shop closest to my store (I do not want to try and dodge more bodie than I have to). I order off the holiday menu, feeling pressured to get into the spirit of the season, seeing that the whole mall is decked out for upcoming holidays, even though it is still early November. I say thanks to my regular barista and he wishes me a good shift, not a good day.

            Once I am on the floor, I look out into the mall from what we lovingly call “the fish bowl.” Mall goers pass us by, looking inside, looking at me and my coworkers, and occasionally enter the store and browse. Patrons do not typically want to talk to us, it is only after we start the conversation that they are willing to have us help them find what they are looking for. Being a lifestyle brand, not many enter the store knowing what they want or need, but some of them still refuse our help and walk away unaware of what they were just looking at. Fashion stores do not have this problem—the function of the items they sell seems obvious— and so, I get jealous thinking about how they might not be so emotionally drained at the end of their shifts, because they need to put in minimal emotional effort.  

            It is time for me to take out the garbage, an adventure every time it’s done. I feel like I am in the game “frogger” as I try to cross the central mall walkway to get to the garbage room on the other side. Many mall goers look on curiously as I open the door to the back hallway, a sight they most likely will never get to see first hand.

            The mall is where the patron is in charge, yet there are so many things they will never know and see, like the back hallways, service elevators, the mall discount, and the comical amount of cardboard in every store’s backroom.

            I get back to my store and continue to talk about the products and neutral things like the weather. I find that many patrons in their late thirties and older enjoy talking with me and my coworkers, but the younger ones would rather avoid talking entirely, unless the conversation was about things that are more meaningful, like personal lives.

            The patrons I talk to never seem to be mean or ill tempered, unless they have had a bad day, and typically they let me know if they did. The fact the store I work in focuses on lifestyle and health, also means that our patrons are more willing to open up about what ails them in order to help me match them with the perfect product. As a result, I leave work that day, and everyday, feeling like I am helping in some small way.


The comparison:

            The first description sought to showcase “all the facts,” particularly regarding the behaviour of mall goers inside the mall. This text was focused on blanket statements, on things that can be observed to be true. Feelings, emotions, atmosphere are lacking, but the voice of the narrator does tell the reader that the writer’s perspective is not that of an ordinary shopper, but perhaps a retail employee or someone familiar to the business. Compared to other ethnographies, the first text was based on the classical writings of Malinowski and his peers.

            The second text is based on the lived experience of a retail employee, myself, interacting with and observing the mall and its patrons on a specific day. It is more honest, to a degree, as it adds more details about the experience as retail workers live it. There are more emotions, analogies, and things that I have personally thought before while on the job. There are fewer straightforward facts as there were with the first text. I would compare the second text to Lila Abu-Lughod’s Veiled Sentiments or Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects, as said ethnographies add the anthropologists into the story, into the study, providing a clear context for the reader.

            If I were to write another ethnography, hopefully a longer and more comprehensive one, I would want to find a happy medium between the two approaches above. Providing a context for the reader is important as it points to limitations and variations between other texts on the same topic but keeping a professional and analytical stance is important so as to educate rather than preach. My preferred approach would be that of Lisa Stevenson’s Life Beside Itself, as it is factual, but also captures the atmosphere of life in Northern Inuit communities. There is no one way to write an ethnography, however, and the voice and writing style I would choose would differ based on topic and how much information I was able to gather.