The Sweet Buy-and-Buy

Shopping mall managers and owners have a phrase for the totality of what happens in their climate-controlled Edens: The Retail Drama. At some malls The Retail Drama is low comedy or pantomime or a degraded television sitcom. At Dadeland, twelve miles south of downtown Miami, it is high art.

From 9:00 a.m. sharp, when maintenance workers shut down a trio of giant floor-buffing machines, switch on 11,500 linear feet of cathode lighting tube, and open the doors to the public (and approximately 2400 mall employees), Dadeland is a consumer tango nonpareil, a universe of Ray-Bans and diamonds, candles and lingerie, Scandia down pillows and oversize Benetton sweaters that will suck in between 50,000 and 150,000 shoppers on any given day. Here you can buy a Florenzi suit for $99 or a Giorgio Armani blazer, on sale, for a mere $1130. You can acquire a copy of Wall Street Wives, in hardback, for $2.99, or a Persian rug for $56,000.

At the Battery Stop, one of dozens of sales carts positioned in mall corridors between the 175 retail stores, you can browse among 500 different kinds of batteries. Down the way the Encyclopaedia Britannica man is working on his eighteen-sets-per-month quota, and the two employees of the tiny jewelry repair center are closing in on August revenues of $14,000. Around the corner you can get a Genesis sixteen-bit video game cartridge called Fatal Labrinth, or a bottle of Rene Guinot all-skin-type Hydrazone with "in-depth rehydration power," or a neon-green Brazilian swimsuit, or, at KayBee Toys, a Super Soaker pump-action squirt gun that shoots a jet of water up to 50 feet.

KayBee also sells Milton Bradley's 1989 electronic Mall Madness, "the talking shopping spree game," for $39.99. "Press the button!" shrieks the ad copy on the back of the box, which shows an ethnically mixed quartet of prepubescent girls laughing and clutching handfuls of cash. "Insert your credit card! You never know what the voice of the mall has `in store' for you! Shop! Look and listen! Press the console button and the Voice will tell you where to move and where to find the best sales. Hurry! Your friends may try to beat you to the bargains! See if you can be the first to buy six items. If you need more money, make a quick stop at the bank."

If none of the eighteen fast-food counters in the food court interests you, there are sit-down restaurants. In keeping with the mall's implicit promise to provide fantasy and drama, an escape from the troubling world beyond its parking lot, nearly all larger restaurants are theme eateries. Ruby Tuesday's is a vaguely nautical and aeronautical enclave with an old-fashioned horseshoe bar; Victoria Station attempts to transport its patrons to the golden age of elegant rail passage; the newest Dadeland restaurant, Southern California-based Johnny Rockets, is an all-American Fifties-era diner that looks more like a Fifties-era diner than any Fifties-era diner probably ever did. As with Dadeland's new Disney retail store, where customers are called guests and workers are "cast members," Johnny Rockets's squeaky clean employees are as much actors as waiters and burger flippers, dressing in pristine white aprons, bow ties, and paper cook's caps. The increasing incorporation of drama restaurants at Dadeland -- and the mall's busy schedule of fashion shows and musical events and dance performances on a collapsible stage near the central fountain -- has much to do with the fact that as many as one in ten Dadeland visitors is actually on his way to Disney World in Orlando.

A recent five-day survey of 301 Dadeland shoppers conducted by Strategy Research Corp. showed that a stunning 97 percent of respondents couldn't think of anything specific they would add to Dadeland in the way of merchandise or store variety. And although there were a few inevitable complaints about parking and high prices, 38 percent of all shoppers -- and more than half the out-of-towner consumers -- couldn't name a single thing they didn't like about the mall. (The survey also showed that precisely zero respondents admitted coming to the mall to kill time or people-watch.) "The satisfaction level," says Dadeland marketing director Yamila Sanchez, with obvious satisfaction, "is phenomenal."

Dadeland, which enters its 30th year next month, is not Miami's oldest shopping mall, nor its prettiest, nor even any longer the area's biggest, considering last year's October opening of Sawgrass Mills Mall in southwest Broward. But in the way that matters most to mall owners, managers, and tenants -- dollar volume -- it has long been Miami's most successful cathedral of commerce, a gilded, 1.35-million-square-foot horizontal anthill that has boggled the minds of marketing pros for at least a decade and shows no signs of slowing down. In the past year Dadeland's tenant space has generated an average of $560 per square foot, a figure twice the national average and one that makes Dadeland not only Florida's most lucrative mall but places it above all but a handful in America in terms of pure, giddy, hand-rubbing profit.

In August 1990, when the industry trade publication Shopping Centers Today posed the question, "Miami's Dadeland Mall: How Do They Do It?" the main conclusion was the mall's genius of location. In 1960, when chicken legs cost nineteen cents per pound and the intersection of Kendall Drive and Dixie Highway was a quiet, sylvan corner, Joseph Meyerhoff and Co. of Baltimore bought a 71-acre tract there. Company representatives were aware of plans to extend the Palmetto Expressway as far south as Kendall, and they dreamed of a time when the suburb might be home to as many as 55,000 people (approximately 250,000 live in Kendall today). They were also aware of something else: In 1956, in the town of Edina, Minnesota, an eccentric, Austrian-born architect named Victor Gruen had built something called Southdale, the first enclosed shopping mall in the world. Southdale was an instant success.

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