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.
Dadeland wasn't. When it came time to put full faith in the radical concept of a hermetically sealed, climate-controlled shopping center, Meyerhoff chickened out. Instead he built a giant open-air plaza, similar to the more recently completed 163rd Street mall in Miami Beach. Dadeland, which quickly took on the nickname Deadland, lost 25 of its first 62 tenants in the five years after its October 1, 1962 opening. In 1967, having reconsidered Gruen's vision and observed the growing success of enclosed malls around the U.S., Dadeland's owners built roofs over the open walkways and sealed the shopping center from the elements. They also added an east wing, the first in a series of slapdash but successful additions to the original structure.
Meyerhoff, which along the way changed its name to Monumental Properties Trust and built Westland Mall in Hialeah, sold Dadeland and eleven other shopping centers to Equitable Real Estate Investment Management Inc. of Atlanta for $400 million in 1979. The deal, at the time one of the largest real estate transactions in the nation's history, ushered in the true boom years for Dadeland. Simple shops such as Burdine Tire, Foremost Liquors, Dadeland Barber Shop, and Robin's Uniforms disappeared; Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor were added in the mid-Eighties, preceded by a new JC Penney and a Jordan Marsh. Dadeland became one of the first malls in the nation to be anchored by five department stores. Burdines, at 426,000 square feet of floor space, grew to be larger than the entire original mall. A Pantry Pride grocery store was removed, replaced by a new creature called a food court on May 30, 1980. From 1983 to 1986, a massive renovation of the mall common areas was orchestrated by local architect Dick Johnson. More recently, Ohio-based retail giant The Limited plans a November opening for its experimental "superstore" at Dadeland. This collection of six upscale boutiques will add another 80,000 square feet of floor space in a new miniwing, and become the center's sixth anchor.
The guard's face, shadowed by a baseball cap marked SECURITY and glowing gray-blue in the light of the giant console before him, bears a friendly resemblance to Herman Munster's. He tinkers with a knob. Somewhere outside the Dadeland security office a lens pans across Level Six of the Dadeland parking garage, zooming randomly in on empty, sunlit parking spaces. Twenty-two other TV screens show various exterior aspects of the mall.
"Take a look at this," says the guard, tapping the screen of one closed-circuit monitor. "We call it Lovers' Lane. About twice a month you find 'em up there, usually in the afternoon. You'll see a woman's head bobbing up and down, or a guy's legs sticking out the car door. And then all of a sudden they see the camera. It's a pandemonium, let me tell you."
The guard turns from the console desk in the windowless room and begins flipping through a big three-ring notebook containing photos of Dadeland's most hardened criminals. One mug shot shows a skinny woman with dirty blond hair and a fierce scowl. "Shoplifting at Accessory Lady," he announces with an exaggerated sigh. A stocky kid in a T-shirt flexes his biceps in the next shot. "Loitering in the parking lot," the guard explains. A confused-looking teen-ager peers from the next glossy frame. "Dipping coins out of the main fountain," he offers. "I think he was getting bus fare."
The next booking photo shows a small, bug-eyed man in an ill-fitting brown suit. The caption reads: Indecent Exposure. "That one was a mistake. We got a call saying this guy was sitting on a bench, playing with himself. We bring him back to the office and he's sitting there in the chair. I says, `Geez, look at him!' He's sitting there with his hand on his thigh like this, in front of his crotch, and his hand is shaking back and forth uncontrollably. Turns out he was shot through the hand in El Salvador and had nerve damage. The bullet that hit him kept going and killed his best friend."
"Pretty tame, huh?" says Scott Garland, Dadeland's assistant security manager. "I couldn't believe it myself at first. There basically isn't any real crime at all. And believe me, I'm happy to be here." Garland has a special reason to be. Before a promotion to Dadeland last year, he spent part of the afternoon of February 19, 1990, walking around the Cutler Ridge Mall with a shotgun pointing at his chest. A mentally unstable shopper named Anthony Booker, who turned out to be reggae star Bob Marley's half brother, showed up at the mall dressed in a white tunic and a bulletproof vest and proceeded to babble Bible verses and terrorize the citizenry. After alternately leading and following the man to the parking lot, Garland watched as an off-duty Miami police detective fatally shot Booker.
Like all flashes of serious crime at shopping malls, Booker's shooting death made for great newspaper copy. The Madman in the Mall may be the quintessential tale of terror for the late Twentieth Century. Beginning with its vast, protective architecture and ending with friendly uniformed authority figures such as Garland, a mall is a psychological bomb shelter where people go to escape the distractions and potential threat of the real world, a place where young men and women are comfortable wearing sexier clothes than they might choose to wear on a downtown city street, where oldsters don't worry as much about carrying cash in their wallets or pocketbooks, where fathers and mothers don't have to think about their kids seeing upsetting sights, where the hallowed American right to be left alone reaches its apotheosis. And it is an essential marketing and management axiom that shoppers must feel safe inside the mall before they will come there and spend money. When the sense of security starts to fray, the cash begins to dry up fast.
At Dadeland, besides a force of seventeen unarmed private patrolmen, individual stores hire their own uniformed and undercover guards. One burly rent-a-cop stands at parade rest against a wall all day long in the elegant furs department of Jordan Marsh. The Metro-Dade Police Department maintains a two-man, around-the-clock Crime Suppression Team to patrol the parking lot in an unmarked car, in addition to regular armed officers who stroll through the mall common areas. Off-duty Florida Highway Patrol personnel are often called in for big sales.
Apparently the last example of gunfire at Dadeland was the July 1979 shoot-out between rival Colombian drug gangs that left two dealers dead and two store employees wounded. But that, Garland points out, was in the no man's land of the parking lot, and took place at a time when Dadeland still had a liquor store as one of its tenants. These days, besides lost children and a bit of shoplifting, there are a couple of pockets picked per day, and an occasional car break-in. But not many. Burglaries, too, are extremely rare. When the crowds wander out Dadeland's eighteen exits at the end of another day, the nighttime alarm system inside the eerily empty mall is so sensitive that its motion detectors are sometimes triggered by a frond falling from a palm tree or a child's helium balloon jostling gently against the towering ceiling.
Dadeland's location turned out to be ideal in more ways than one. It is the American shopping mall closest and dearest to Latin America. Strategy Research Corp.'s recent survey concluded that 35 percent of Dadeland shoppers are out-of-town visitors, overwhelmingly from Central and South America and the Caribbean. Many merchants believe the figure is actually much higher.
But even if Latin American shoppers do not yet outnumber locals, their money does. South Florida residents who shop at Dadeland have an average household income of $35,660, compared to $53,900 for nonresidents. Overseas visitors spend an average of $245 inside the mall during each excursion, versus a piddling $182 for locals. Though slightly more picky about mall cleanliness and appearance, Latin American spenders linger 40 minutes longer in Dadeland, part with twice as many dollars for food and drink, and are far less concerned about security and high prices.
"To be honest, we don't rely on local customers at all," says a salesman at Florsheim Shoes, one of only fifteen surviving tenants from the original mall. "Eighty percent of our people are South Americans. They don't fool around. They have the money, and they walk in and say, `I want this and this and that.' Local people might try on a pair of shoes and say, yes, these feel comfortable, but let me think about it. I saw another pair at a store over there.' You wind up spending an hour with them and not making a sale. I had a friend at the Merry Go Round who used to have this Colombian guy come in. He would walk in the store and just say, `Give me one of everything that's on sale -- just wrap it up quick.'" The Oriental trade is important, too, adds the salesman. "Yesterday we had eight Japanese tourists in here. They packed the whole store. And they spent $1500 in ten minutes."
At Bon Voyage, Miami's exclusive seller of German Gold-Pfeil luggage and leather goods, the customer guest book lists few locals, and shows that the last fifteen sales were made to visitors from Santiago, Chile; Villa Nevarez, Puerto Rico; San Salvador, El Salvador; Lima, Peru; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Panama City, Panama; Tegucigalpa, Honduras; Brasilia, Brazil; Bogota, Colombia; Kingston, Jamaica; Buenos Aires and Mendoza, Argentina; Santiago, Dominican Republic; and Caracas and Valencia, Venezuela. "Someone came in from -- where was she from? -- Colombia, and bought an eight-piece set of Lark luggage, top-of-the-line stuff," says Jose Ortega, Bon Voyage's soft-spoken, gentlemanly manager, recalling a recent $7000 sale. "Americans just don't do that any more -- they buy a piece at a time. Overseas people take advantage of their annual trip to Miami."
In fact, Dadeland's overseas shoppers are now making the trip almost as frequently as Kendall residents. In the three months preceding the March 1990 survey, foreign respondents said they had shopped at Dadeland an average of three times, compared to five visits for locals. The 24-story Dadeland Marriott, built in 1982 across the street from the mall on the site of an abandoned German POW camp, owes more than half its business to out-of-towners who come to Kendall for the express purpose of shopping at Dadeland. Another large portion of guests at the 303-room hotel are spouses and children of corporate travelers who also wind up shopping at the mall. The average stay at the hotel is two and one-half days. "Out of the Latin American market, 100 percent of our guests have on their mind one thing: Dadeland Mall," says Annette Martiz, the hotel's director of marketing. "We have gotten into the habit of storing things for them. If they're going on to Orlando, they don't want to be carrying suitcases full of clothes, and microwaves."
The extent to which Dadeland is becoming a trans-Caribbean shopping mecca has not been lost on mall management. "From 1979 to 1983 we did a few overseas promos, some advertisements in airline magazines," says Dadeland general manager Mel Mendelsohn. "It was kind of hit-or-miss. Now our efforts are very targeted, very direct." Besides ads in Vanidades, a popular monthly magazine sold throughout Latin America, Dadeland's latest media blitz features hour-long extravaganzas on Brazilian television and a two-page spread in Spanish-language Cosmopolitan, to run four months in thirteen countries. In the ad, Dadeland is touted as a dream destination through a special write-in lottery. The winner gets $10,000 in cash, a round-trip ticket to Miami, a week at the Dadeland Marriott, a rental convertible, and dinner with an as-yet-unnamed Latin American celebrity hunk.
"I worked on numerous main streets," says Harold Sternberg, the regional manager of Lanson's, a men's clothing store with old-world feel. "Hempstead, Long Island; White Plains, New York; other places. In Hempstead our address was number one Main Street. This was 40 years ago. That area, like other main streets, has gone by the wayside. They're dead."
Specifically, the old downtown business district of Hempstead was bled dry by Roosevelt Field, a giant mall built on the airstrip from which Charles Lindbergh launched the first transatlantic airplane flight. (Roosevelt Field went up the same year as Victor Gruen's invention in Edina, Minnesota, but began as an open mall; like Dadeland, it was also enclosed in 1967.) Sternberg, then a salesman for Genesco Shoe Co., at first couldn't figure out what was happening to the stores where he worked. Much of post-World War II retailing was based on the belief that car-crazy Americans wanted strip shopping centers or single-store complexes next to highways -- places that offered merchandise as close as possible to the automobile driver's seat. The mall exploded conventional wisdom by showing that people actually longed to get out of their cars and walk around -- provided they could somehow take heating and air conditioning with them. "It was a new experience for all of us," Sternberg recalls. "And the big draw, of course, was climate control."
Sternberg continued working for Genesco for a time, but eventually wound up in Miami in the early Seventies, at the mall. And like thousands of other young couples who couldn't afford a house nearer Miami, he and his wife settled into Kendall. "From 107th Avenue west it was a dirt road," he recalls. "They called it the Road to Nowhere. There were plenty of skeptics who said it was insane to buy a house out here, let alone build a mall. But on the other hand, you could see what was happening to the area. We bought a house in a development called Winston Park for $35,000, and we had to sleep out overnight to get it. We were all young families who came from other parts of the country, and we had been raised in the suburbs. We made more and more money, we bettered ourselves, to the point where if you go to the churches and temples around here now you can see it's a very affluent area. And Dadeland, from the beginning, was synonymous with this area -- it was the downtown of Kendall, a new kind of main street."
Several generations of the same family sometimes find themselves at Dadeland at the same time. A gnomish gentleman who was born in Spain in the year 1900 sits each Monday morning on a bench at one end of the west mall, squinting at the stock exchange listings in a newspaper. On both sides of the oldster, a steady stream of walkers sweeps past, part of a mall walking program sponsored by Dadeland and Doctors' Hospital. The walkers, mostly South Dade retirees, swarm through the common areas of the mall three mornings per week for 50 minutes, then do cool-down exercises and have their blood pressure tested by a nurse. "There's my son," says the old man, pointing out one of the slackers. "He is 72. He comes here with his daughter -- my granddaughter. We'll see her in a little. I don't walk, I just look at the papers. I have 30 stocks! Can you believe it?"
Like other malls across the U.S., Dadeland, with its meditative fountains and benches and its recessed toddler pits, is one of the last places old and young folks naturally encounter and observe one another. And for years it has been an institution that has taken on civic enterprises commonly associated with local government. A cello, flute, and piano ensemble plays classical works from nineteenth-century composers in the food court. Kendall's Baptist Hospital last year opened a health shop here, offering Lamaze and CPR courses, and miniclasses in nutrition.
Next month the mall will host the opening of nearby SW 85th Street -- and then adopt it as part of a new Dade roads program in which private enterprise takes over the maintenance of public thoroughfares. Also in October the mall will throw its second annual black-tie gala, with proceeds going to Miami Dade Community College for support of the school's "Dadeland Scholars." Since December 1984, workers with long-handled squeegees and a lot of patience have scooped more than five million pennies out of Dadeland fountains. The loot goes to the Jackson Memorial Hospital Burn Center. As part of its not-so-subtle, in-house quit-smoking policy, Dadeland's trashcan-ashtray podiums are placed a frustrating ten feet from its benches and fountains.
While South Florida's consumer mother ship grows increasingly into an out-of-towners' destination, it also has solidified its role and reputation as a community center for residents south of Flagler Street. One of the most surprising figures in the mall's most recent market study is the fact that the average nonforeign Dadeland shopper has lived in the Greater Miami area for fifteen years, an eternity in terms of the area's endemic population transience.
Last summer University of Miami urban-planning professor Jack Winston drew up some sketches of what Dadeland Mall might look like in the first decade of the 21st Century. The sketches show motorists flowing down a tree-lined North Kendall Drive, framed between the Palmetto Expressway and Dixie Highway by twin Arcs de Triomphe. Dozens of parking garages-cum-condos stand like huge battlements surrounding Dadeland, where a vast, leafy plaza has taken over the roof covering the broad front parking areas. The self-sufficient economy of this futuristic suburban city is fueled by lawyers and bankers in nearby office towers, and fed by an existing pair of Metrorail stations.
"My wife doesn't like me to talk about this, but I'll tell you a little story," says Sternberg, who has been president of the Dadeland Merchants Association for nine years and who was the first inductee into the recently established Dadeland Hall of Fame. "My mother died a few years back, and we had to take her up to New York for burial. It got me thinking. So I bought a plot not far from here. It's just up the parkway, about a mile, on the other side of the road. I tell my wife she can wave at me when she goes by on the way to go shopping." Sternberg pauses for a moment. "The truth is, I'd like to be buried right here, anywhere, as long as it's on Dadeland property. I love this mall. It's been my life, really.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.
- Trump Sues Univision for a Half-Billion Dollars, Proves He's Totally Unfit for the...
- U.S.-Cuban Embassies May Be Reopening, but Appointing an Ambassador Might Become a Fight
- Heat Signs Dragic to Five-Year, $90-Million Deal; Still Pursuing Wade