How retailers create the perfect shopping world

April 19, 2011, 1:00 PM UTC

Malls: Whether sparkling-new or grubby and worn, they are carefully designed shopping environments that aim to maximize the amount of money consumers leave behind. In this book excerpt, here’s what one writer learned when she went to work at one. 

By Caitlin Kelly, contributor

You’re probably going to buy something today—gas, groceries, a double-skim latte, diapers, a pack of gum, or maybe a dress or a pair of sneakers. You’ll swipe your credit or debit card, or pay cash, or maybe write a check and hand it to someone standing in front of you, since we still make 90% of our purchases in person.

But who is that person standing across from you? Do you ever stop to think about it?

For two years and three months—rare in an industry with 100% turnover every year—that person was me. I worked for The North Face, an internationally known brand of outdoor clothing and equipment, selling merchandise in a company store in a suburban mall. I had never before worked retail, except for a brief teenage stint in a small Toronto drugstore where I handled the cash register and sullenly refilled shelves.

Instead, I’d spent my life as a shopper, an author, a reporter, a world traveler, a wife.

But, after more than a decade of freelancing, I was fed up with the growing gap between its putative freedom and the constant hustle. I wanted to try something new, but craved (did this exist?) something simple and steady. Something that would pay me promptly and regularly.I needed a part-time job.

Reading my local paper, I saw in September 2007 a help wanted ad for The North Face. I asked for $11 an hour, working two days a week. That would still leave me three and a half days a week, if I didn’t work weekends, for writing and editing assignments. I was a little nervous about giving up even a few hours of that time, but I’d really reached the end of my rope focusing all of my energy on one set of skills.

Now that the mall was my new workplace, even one or two days a week, I began to see it with fresh eyes.

We think we’re just going shopping. But those who design stores, and especially those planning and conceptualizing the malls that contain them, know better.

“You’re trying to build a better mousetrap,” says Peter Tovell, a Toronto architect whose thirty-year career has been devoted to designing malls and shopping centers. “We don’t want you to be able to find your way out! Our job is to create a whole different world.”

“A lot of retailers believe environment is neutral—we think presentation is just as important [as the products we display],” says Urban Oufitters CEO Glen Senk. His company owns Anthropologie; in a vicious recession when almost every other retailer was closing stores, slashing inventory, and firing executives, their sales grew by 22% to $1.8 billion. That’s a lot of smelly soap and lacy camisoles.

Every Apple store creates its own brand of visual excitement, the store an enormous glass box filled with white walls, counters, and floors, and smart, geeky young sales staff. The store itself is a simulacrum of a MacBook or iPad—a sleek, glossy, sexy toy you just can’t wait to play with, let alone show off.

Malls these days are doing whatever they can to stay relevant, trying to woo high-spending consumers who—unlike a few years ago—aren’t Baby Boomers, now worried about retirement and paying for their kids’ college, but teens and tweens who live at home and still have plenty of disposable income as a result.

We’re rarely indifferent to malls, no matter how much we mock, or revere, them. They arouse powerful reactions; when architecture critic Alison Arieff wrote about them in June 2009 in The New York Times, 265 readers weighed in. Many complained that traditional malls are too big, too sterile, and simply exhausting, forcing shoppers to wander in circles searching for parking, a seat, or simply the exit.

Even Paco Underhill, who’s probably spent more time (professionally) shopping than anyone, says, “Most malls are twenty-five years or older and they were butt ugly when they opened and they haven’t gotten any prettier.”

Underhill’s firm Envirosell, hired by major malls and retailers around the world, from South Africa to Brazil to Canada, tracks shoppers so minutely it’s a little creepy. With the use of thousands of metrics, customers are videotaped and listened to and watched and trailed by experts with detailed spreadsheets noting every possible interaction with every aspect of the store. When they entered, did they pause? Turn left? Pick up a shopping basket or a cart? Did they read the signage? To do so, did they have to squint or raise their head?

Conversion remains the golden, precious, and elusive point of the whole exercise. It’s a shimmering, bobbing, fragile soap bubble of trust, curiosity, amusement, and discovery that, briefly, envelops and joins seller and possible buyer. One fake smile, an unanswered question, an overeager upsell—and, pop!, you’ve lost it for good.

Excerpted from Malled. Published by Portfolio / Penguin. Copyright Caitlin A. Kelly LLC, 2011.

More from Fortune:

Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.