In Business as Life, Perception is Reality

They called it the Mall of Murder. When the building opened in October of 1981, its 885,000 square feet of gleaming ivory tile floors and skylit ceilings beckoned shoppers from over a hundred miles away. Sixty thousand visitors flooded the doors on opening day. One hundred sixty retail stores—not in practice unlike your own—once thrived there.

I say once, because the mall is no more. It died long before it should have. Its doors, along with the doors of every single store inside, fell victim to one of the most critical aspects of business.

Perception.

In the day-to-day grind of your store, other operations can take priority over perception. But perception is one of the most important intangibles of any business operation. Perception defines you. And that definition can either make…or in this case, break you.

Submitted for the approval of the midnight society, this is The Tale of the Mall of Murder.

For children of the 1980s and early ’90s, the Mall of Memphis, as the building was officially called, was a destination of magic. Its long, atrium-filled corridors were a playground packed with unlimited adventure. An indoor ice skating rink—the Ice Chalet (complete with jumbotron)—two-story food court, five-screen movie theatre and the Mario-packed Gold Mine Arcade attracted kids from Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee like a siren’s call. Major department stores like Dillard’s and JCPenney attracted their parents.

For the first several years, times at the Mall of Memphis were good. Stores boomed. Shiny, new residential areas popped up around the mall. By 1987, over 250,000 people a month were visiting the mall, and most of the controversy surrounding the place had to do with the discovery of prehistoric mastodon bones near the parking lot. (The bones were later excavated and transported to a nearby museum.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MUny5JfaWJQ

But just weeks after the mall announced a $9 million dollar renovation, its good fortunes would come to an earth-shattering end.

On September 9, 1990, the body of 37-year-old Dorothy McClung was found off of a farm road in rural Arkansas—just across the Mississippi River from Memphis. McClung had been abducted from a shopping center parking lot about a mile from the mall by a 16-year-old assailant. Local news quickly picked up on the story: an adult woman from an affluent Memphis neighborhood kidnapped and murdered by a teenager; abducted, they said, in the Mall of Memphis area.

McClung’s death was not an isolated incident. By the time 71-year-old Louise Warren was shot in the mall’s parking lot in 1992, at least four other people had been killed in the Mall of Memphis area.

The Mall of Memphis area. The goliath-size building at its epicenter would soon be known more widely by another name, the Mall of Murder.

Within a few years, perception around the once glimmering regional retail destination would change irreparably for the worse. Mall ownership was trapped in a public relations game they couldn’t win. Guard towers were erected in the parking lots, spotters with binoculars were set on the building’s roof, but this only served to enforce the mall’s fearsome reputation. Local news ran amuck with terror stories about the shopping center. Once a home for family and children, they said, this American icon has become a home for thieves and murderers.

From the point that local perception of the mall changed, it was doomed. Despite another renovation, including a renaming, in the early 2000s, the Mall of Memphis shuttered its doors for good in 2003. The Mall of Murder, people celebrated, was gone. Crime had finally killed it. The wrecking ball was on its way.

Photo: MallofMemphis.org
Photo: MallofMemphis.org

In the decade-plus since the mall’s closing, hindsight has lent a new perspective to the story of the Mall of Murder. It turns out the building’s frightening reputation may not have been deserved after all. McClung’s abduction didn’t actually occur on mall grounds; it happened about a mile away, and a mile can make a big difference in any city.

Warren’s death, while a similar tragedy, was among a relative few that actually took place on Mall of Memphis grounds through its 22-year run.

A Rhodes College study conducted just a year after the mall’s doors shut for good concluded that the Mall of Memphis actually had the lowest per capita crime rate of any of the four malls within the city at that time. Over-reporting of crime in the area, the report concludes, was a primary cause of the building’s downfall.

In other words, perception became reality. Even if reality itself told a different tale.

“OK,” you say. “But what does that have to do with my tackle shop?”

More than you might think.

While it’s doubtful (we hope) that your store will ever be associated with crime and murder, it can gain something else that’s capable of running you into the ground: a bad perception. Walking into a new tackle store can sometimes feel like a 50/50 proposition. Is this going to be a friendly store? Are the people behind the counter going to be helpful? Will I be able to find the tackle I need? What if I don’t even know what kind of tackle I need?

These are the questions new customers could be asking before they ever walk in your door. And from the moment they walk in, they start answering them.

Is your store well-lit? Is it clean and tidy? Do your employees welcome everyone with a smile? If you can answer “no” to any of those questions, you might want to consider guard towers for your parking lot.

Perception, you see, is everything. And in the retail business, perception can kill.