So many scientific creators are stripped of the credit for their own theories. Not Victor Gruen. He has a theory named especially for him. The problem is that it’s the very last theory he’d ever want.
If you’ve found yourself wandering zombie-like through a mall or a grocery store, looking around and hoping that something will catch your eye, many would say that you’ve been the victim of a Gruen Transfer. The "transfer" is the moment when you stop shopping for something in particular, and start just shopping in general.
Eye-catching displays, carefully-laid-out floor plans, and illogical shopping routes that require you to visit the maximum amount of space and view the maximum number of distracting products - they're all strategies that well-planned stores use to peel people way from a specific desire for an object, and steer them toward a generalized desire to shop. This can be unpleasant, but it's the least of a shopper's worries. It's a micro-Gruen transfer. There are macro-Gruen transfers. They happen whenever someone declares their desire to hang out at a mall, or walk down a street full of clothing stores, or check out which action figures have showed up at which toy stores. It’s the reason why a ton of competitors will cluster together, when logically they should distinguish themselves and look for a market that’s cut off from the common supply. When we go out to these places, we don’t want anything specific. We just want to look at all the things that are for sale and, while we’re there, spend our money on some of them.
The desire to check out nice-looking goods isn't new. If something is worth selling it should at least also be worth looking at. Throughout history, plenty of people went out to markets and general stores and looked at what they had to offer – they just looked while they did their own shopping. The Gruen transfer is the idea that the shopping experience itself was worth doing, and that paying money for something not on any specific agenda was the agenda.
And this mind-trick, this consumerism for consumerism’s sake, was the brain child of an architect named Victor Gruen. He’s the one who turned American day-to-day life into something that could be parodied in a zombie film. The entire trick bears his name, after all.
The problem is, Gruen wasn’t a fan of the transfer at all. He railed against confusing, maddening stores that baffled consumers. In fact, his whole idea of a mall was based on efficiency on a very wide scale. Gruen noted the flight of the well-to-do to suburbs and the stratification of class in the cities. Although everything from charity lunches to seats at a sporting match could be segregated by class, he knew that everyone needed clothes, and toys, and things for their home. If they had access all these things in one place, shopping would be more efficient, and there would be less need for a car to make a long drive between suburban shops. If, Gruen reasoned, the place was designed so that people could easily see the any new or particularly useful merchandise, the efficiency would increase. And, because there were only so many ways to design efficiently, many stores would be standardized. But Gruen wanted something more. Shopping places, he thought, should feature gardens, benches, cafes, and courtyards. It should be an experience. Then things like malls wouldn’t just be commercial zones, but would serve as public gathering places, where everyone, from every level of society, could mingle. He wanted to entice people, and get people to interact with each other, not confuse them.
Unfortunately, he and the people he was working for had very different goals. Stores, and realized that the displays, the lay-out, and the all-in-one efficiency could work to their advantage. People bought more when faced with more goods to buy, and there was nothing like the sight of endless things to purchase that made people reach for their wallets. Slowly, the idea of a pleasant and efficient place gave way to a giant shop-topia, where people would lose track of both time and money. Gruen tried to combat this by building bigger malls, and demanding more control over them so he could make them more spectacular and draw people away from those that were substandard. This didn’t help. The Gruen transfer didn't fade, it just got bigger.
And so the guy who wanted to provide a public space, where everyone could get their shopping done so they could socialize, ended up inventing a system in which socialization equals shopping. And getting it named after him. But it's not all bad. Gruen can take some bitter solace in the fact that, once we’re all zombified consumers, it doesn’t matter what class we are anymore. We're all the same.