The only thing more American than apple pie might be the shopping mall. Between 1970 and 2015, one industry analysis found, the number of malls in the United States grew at more than twice the rate of the population. Their ubiquity traces back to one architect's insight about shopping: It's not about the items you sell—it's about the spectacle in which you sell them.
That architect, Austrian-born Victor Gruen, fathered the modern-day mall—the now-iconic complex of stores teeming with fountains, food courts, and idle teenagers. Gruen's firm built Minnesota's Southdale Center, which opened in 1956 as the country's first indoor mega-mall. Its designers had one chief goal: to build an environment so alluring that consumers forgot what they came to buy and made impulsive purchases. "Shoppers will be so dazzled by a store's surroundings," wrote Gruen biographer M. Jeffrey Hardwick, "they will be drawn—unconsciously, continuously—to shop."
This phenomenon, known as Gruen Transfer, became hugely influential in retail design and familiar to any shopper. Those grocery trips where you insist you'll just buy milk, only to leave with pears from an autumnal display, chocolates you couldn't miss at checkout, and 20 other expendables? They are moments of Gruen Transfer—the store atmosphere seduced you into buying a full cart.
Today, headlines proclaim "the death of malls," as consumers increasingly buy digitally or are too strapped for cash to spend at all. But shopping websites bring the Gruen Transfer online: You might log onto Amazon to buy books, then find yourself clicking one of countless products on its endless pages. If we want to dodge Gruen, on- and offline, we'll need ways to block out the noise and stick to our shopping lists.
A version of this story originally appeared in the December/January 2018 issue of Pacific Standard.