Stroll through almost any mall and you will notice two familiar sights: a crowd at the movie theaters and sale signs in the windows of stores that are still in business.
But big changes are on the way at your local shopping center. Particularly if the visions of imaginative architects, designers, developers and consultants come to pass. Or if the innovations starring in the newest entertainment-shopping monoliths are widely imitated.
Indeed, the mall of tomorrow is destined to be far more than a spot to catch a movie, inspect reduced-price fashions or slurp an Orange Julius.
For one thing, there's a lot more entertainment coming to malls in the immediate future. And stores may be remarkably different, too. The experts predict mall shops won't just sell stuff. They will teach customers how to use their purchases (a pair of skis, for instance) and provide them with vacation packages so they can show off their new equipment.
For now, however, it's entertainment that's taking center stage. No where is this more apparent than in Bloomington, Minn., and Las Vegas, Nev. Consider:
* At Mall of America in Bloomington, the recently opened, seven-acre theme park, 400-store mall combo, shoppers can visit Paul Bunyan's Log Chute, a "Ripsaw" roller coaster, Camp Snoopy . . . and outposts of Bloomingdale's, Spago and Sears.
* In the Forum at Caesar's in Las Vegas, it's impossible to ignore a lavish fountain in which the bellies of Roman gods wiggle when they giggle, a "sky" that changes color (from pre-dawn to post-dusk) and -- what else? -- banks of video poker machines. Almost as a sideline, there are about 50 stores: North Beach Leather, Gianni Versace, Louis Vuitton and other, mostly upscale retailers.
Meanwhile, some older, more traditional malls are tiptoeing into showbiz, too. The Glendale (Calif.) Galleria recently offered kids a chance to participate in the making of a rock video. And Santa Monica (Calif.) Place has life-sized Bugs Bunny and Tweety Bird characters scheduled to roam the mall.
Linda Berman, a Los Angeles-based consultant to shopping center developers, believes such events signify that developers are no longer stuck in a '70s and '80s mode of "merely building, building and more building -- moving bodies and housing stores."
Because most of the prime mall locations have already been developed and financing for new centers is difficult to come by, she has noticed developers are focusing on improving existing centers. "They're looking ahead and coming up with creative solutions to the retail slump we're experiencing nationwide," says Ms. Berman, co-owner of Berman-Katz in Hollywood.
"The shopping center people I and my partner have been talking to are looking primarily at entertainment. It's still considered a progressive idea. A couple of years ago, it was considered avant-garde."
Ms. Berman ventures that malls of the future will provide "family entertainment centers with virtual reality rides and other ways of experiencing the latest technologies. A few years from now, entertainment in malls will be seen as standard and necessary."
Though many consider the shopping center to be a basic necessity of life, the world lived without malls until Oct. 8, 1956, when the two-tiered, climate-controlled, Southdale Center opened in Edina, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis. Until then "strip centers" -- lineups of connected stores built along a strip with the stores facing the street -- provided the biggest competition to downtown and village-style shopping districts.
As suburbia spread, so did malls. They quickly became popular meeting places and community centers with construction peaking in the early 1970s, according to figures compiled by the New York City-based International Council of Shopping Centers.
At the end of 1991, the ICSC counted 37,975 shopping centers (including strip centers) in the United States; about 5 percent of those were enclosed regional malls.
But don't look for too many new centers in the near future, especially not the larger ones.
John Riordan, executive vice president of ICSC, predicts that a few more of the big, mega mall-entertainment complexes will crop up "but you can count them on the fingers of your two hands. The current state of financing is very off-putting. In terms of everyday shopping, my guess is that structurally, physically, there isn't going to be a lot of change, especially not in North America."