At 7 in the morning inside the Mall of America, capitalism sleeps. There are rows of kiosks with metal grates latched shut. Zamboni-like machines polish the floors. The crowds of shoppers—enough people on any given day, it’s been estimated, for the Mall of America to qualify as Minnesota’s third largest “city”—won’t enter for another couple hours.
The only people here now, save for a few security guards and other employees, are the mall walkers.
While the origins of mall walking, or walking in shopping malls for exercise, are unclear, it is now a practice so prevalent throughout America that a report released earlier this year by the CDC listed shopping malls as the second most popular venue for walking in the country, just behind neighborhoods. The report touts malls as “free, relatively accessible, and pedestrian-friendly environments.” These features appeal especially to older people, who value the level surfaces, benches, water fountains, and restrooms that malls provide. Also, the “latest fashionable workout attire is not a requisite for mall walking.”
Indeed. As I traversed the ocean of polished concrete with a mall walker named Delores Armitage, she peered into the window of a Hot Topic as we passed by. “Since nothing’s open you don’t have to worry about what you’re going to buy,” she said. “Plus, all the stores sell clothes for young people.”
Armitage is not alone in her lack of consumerist enthusiasm. In this way, mall walkers fly in the face of what has been the intrinsic purpose of all shopping malls for the past several decades: to bleed as much money as possible from the wallets of every single visitor. While tourists reportedly spend an average of $162 per visit to the Mall of America, mall walkers rarely buy anything, except maybe a “cup of coffee and a sticky bun at the food court,” according to Emil Pocock, a professor emeritus at Eastern Connecticut State University who studies shopping-mall culture.