The Deviousness of Shopping Centre Design

By Ethan Catt

Virtually every product you see on store shelves has been designed to capture your attention, appeal to your sensibilities and entice you into spending your hard earned cash. Everything from bug spray to dog food to discount chocolate sits on their designated shelf-space, screaming to be picked up by you, the potential consumer. But, while we’re so preoccupied with the designs of packaging and products placed before us, it’s easy to forget the most devious design of all- the design of the shopping centre itself.

Shopping centres, malls and supermarkets are all designed to be confusing (looking at you, IKEA), and so it’s something we’ve learnt to live with as the norm. Even upon immediately walking into these dens of capitalism, we’re bombarded with sales signs, forced to browse every isle to track down the specific item we need, and the essentials- like milk or meat- are almost always stowed at the very back of the store. But this isn’t through lack of design, mind you- this is through purposeful, (borderline predatory) design.


(Maybe if you squint you can find what you’re looking for)

                The confusing layout of supermarkets forces you to actively go searching for the products you want- scanning the shelves for the Italian pasta sauce you need for tonight’s dinner. Is it in the ‘international’ section? Or the ‘sauces’ section?? There’s only one way to find out- scanning each row, product by product, while the dull, relaxed (and specifically curated) music playing over the store’s speakers entices you to slow down, take your time and really take a look at these deals presented before you. Suddenly, you notice a soy sauce that would go great with your Thursday’s stir-fry- and it’s on sale! You can’t help but pick it up.

This is what we call the “Gruen Transfer;” the act of entering a store with the goal to purchase a particular set of items, only to have your priorities changed and come out with other products as well. Victor Gruen, designer of the world’s first shopping centre, took into account every element of his creation; from the background music, shelf layout and even the fluorescent lighting- all of which is designed for the sole purpose of luring you into purchasing more than you intended. Is this responsible? Unlikely. Is that immoral? Arguably. Does it work? Absolutely.


(Multi-level shopping centres are the biggest culprits in disorienting design)

                With great power comes great responsibility- good design can improve the way we go through our lives, improving our activities and interactions. And yet, at the same time it can work against us, manipulating us to spend more than we want on things we may not really want. I doubt it’s possible to twist big supermarket chains to “rethink” their store designs to go against their business interests- but once we’re aware of the design tools they use against us, we can identify them, and perhaps avoid falling victim to their manipulation.

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