Sandton City‘s social media people asked me to direct message them regarding a joking exchange I had with Craig Jamieson on Twitter about an unpleasant experience I had at Sandton City recently. Its a bit of a story and not at all something to fit into a direct message so I’ll just blog it.
Its not exactly a groundbreaking and shocking story but it really upset me at the time. First, a little background. I discovered my crankiness around and in between meal times wasn’t just me being a pain in the butt, my blood sugar tends to drop pretty dramatically if I don’t eat something every few hours. I’m not sure what the cause is (I’ve considered diabetes, runs in my family, but the symptoms don’t really fit) but it turns out its in my family. When I go for too long without some sort of snack or meal I start to feel really lousy and have some difficulty focusing.
I drove to Sandton City on the 7th of December to pick up my new camera as a birthday present for myself. By the time I got there I felt particularly bad. I hadn’t eaten since about 7am that morning. I parked near the new section in Sandton City and made a beeline for food. The mall was pretty busy and I grabbed a ready made roll from the Bread Basket which was too busy for me to sit down and eat (my preference). I had to eat something quickly so I started eating as I walked, looking for a bench. Sandton City’s management, in their wisdom, prioritized foot traffic flow over basic human needs like the need to sit down when walking the kilometers of shopping space in the mall. It looks like most of the benches have been removed from the walkways and there are a couple benches in the new section and one or two scattered elsewhere.
I couldn’t find anywhere to sit down and because I headed towards the new section, I was heading away from the food court (which I thought would be pretty busy too). Eating as I walked to stave off what felt like an imminent collapse (it was a particularly bad day), I arrived at the new section and sat down on an empty bench to finish off my roll and recover a bit. I had just sat down when a security guard approached me and told me I wasn’t allowed to eat on that bench and had to go to the food court. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and explained what was going on. The security guard informed me that no-one was allowed to eat on those benches and if you want to eat something, you have to go to the food court. When I protested he suggested that I may be more co-operative with his supervisor and proceeded to radio for assistance. I clearly posed a threat, sitting there clutching my roll, trying not to fall over.
Frustrated and pretty annoyed, I told him I would leave and started walking towards the food court. I finished my roll by the time I got there, rested for a moment and then got on with my shopping. While I understand that Sandton City is private property and the right to admit people is reserved, the experience left me feeling decidedly like a criminal and one of the many numbers spending money in the mall.
The more I thought about it the more it seems Sandton City is optimized for retailers’ benefit. Shoppers are channelled down long walkways, encouraged to shop and keep walking. No benches mean no blockages in the pipes. Expensive parking means we get in, spend our money and get out, making way for more shoppers. True, the mall and the shops inside are businesses and improving business efficiency is better for business and profitably but those walkways may as well be conveyor belts. The whole setup dehumanizes shoppers and reduces us to credit cards and cash but we keep going back because the stuff we want is there.
I was in Sandton City with my family about a week ago and we went to a kids’ clothing shop (my wife had vouchers and we wanted to get some clothes for our kids). My daughter was in her pram and she was a little cranky so I sat outside the shop with her and my son. We were sitting on the floor against the shop’s window and my son was eating popcorn. A security guard standing nearby came up to us while we sat there and I ignored him to see what would happen. I was sitting with my back to the walkway. He came up behind us and stood there for a while as if I was supposed to take some hint and move. I just ignored him and he wandered off only to return a little later to hover over us. My wife finished our shopping, we cleaned up what little mess my son made with the popcorn and we left.
I was determined to write a flaming blog post about the first incident when it occurred and decided not to bother. It would give Sandton City more publicity and, at that point, I had decided that I’d rather give what little publicity I could to brands who were responsive, considerate and made an effort to be consumer friendly instead of paying lip service to social marketing and consumers’ desires (I changed my mind after a spirited Twitter discussion about singling out bad brands even though they often don’t bother to engage meaningfully but that’s another blog post).
When it comes to mall security, whether it be Sandton City or some other mall, customers are not the people who indirectly pay for it all. We are to be regarded with suspicion and made to abide by the mall’s rules, however unreasonable, arbitrary or ridiculous. Its all about maximizing the business’ profitability, not creating a space customers are comfortable in and are encouraged to spend more time in, possibly spending more money. Nope, we’re widgets and we are there to be cranked.