Shopping Choices: the Case of Mall Choice

Jeffrey J. Stoltman, Wayne State University
James W. Gentry, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Kenneth A. Anglin, Central Michigan University
[ to cite ]:
Jeffrey J. Stoltman, James W. Gentry, and Kenneth A. Anglin (1991) ,"Shopping Choices: the Case of Mall Choice", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 434-440.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 434-440


Jeffrey J. Stoltman, Wayne State University

James W. Gentry, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Kenneth A. Anglin, Central Michigan University

The focus of this paper is on a specific retail patronage phenomenon: mall shopping. Though this form of retailing may have a less promising future than once thought (Turchiano 1990), mall shopping clearly constitutes a significant aspect of retail patronage. The retail sales volume estimates and the affinity of certain consumer segments for this retail venue underscores this point (see Feinberg 1991). While malls have been a formidable aspect of the retailing environment for decades, and a variety of mall-types dot the landscape (e.g., off-price malls and festival malls), surprisingly little research has focused on this general phenomenon. A better understanding of this important form of consumer behavior will result as efforts are made to delineate and empirically estimate the nature of and underlying reasons for this behavior.

Rather than to categorize consumers as patrons or non-patrons with respect to malls, it makes more sense to explore the form and strength of their patronage. This is important because other retail outlets (e.g., shopping plazas, retail centers, etc.) can offer several of the benefits of malls (e.g., broad product assortments in close proximity to one's residence). Although the terms shopping"area," "center" and "mall" have been used interchangeably in the past, there are important conceptual distinctions to be drawn. Just as a downtown shopping center or area may or may not be mall-like, a shopping center can be a plaza or a mall. So-called "festival areas" have been developed to help revitalize some downtown districts (cf. Maronick and Stiff 1985), plazas now include both covered and "power" formats (where a national discount department store operates like anchor stores in conventional mall development), and malls now come in the "standard", mixed-use format, as well as in mini, mega, regional, high-fashion/specialty, and off-price/outlet formats. The emergence of the hypermarket/ superstore concept in this country promises to complicate things even further. Whether consumers do, in fact, vary in their propensity and affinities with respect to these many options is undetermined. Researchers have not even scratched the surface with respect to these many variants and the choice alternatives they present to shoppers.

That such developments have not been noted and examined previously underscores the fact that in addition to being limited in quantity, the extant literature is dated. Moreover, findings reported when central business districts were in decline and malls were in a relative growth stage may no longer hold. It was during this period that a gravitational theory of center/area patronage gained strength. These studies demonstrated that the size of a trading area and driving time/distance to that area offered a suitable prediction of patronage. However, it has been shown that this explanation is incomplete because it fails to recognize important qualitative distinctions between shopping choices (cf. Gautschi 1981). The importance of these qualitative factors needs to be considered in light of the many ways in which shopping areas have been developed and promoted. Furthermore, as retail choices have proliferated, shoppers have undergone many important changes in their lifestyles, spending habits, and shopping tendencies and strategies. For example, May (1989) discusses the increasing demands on time and changing requirements regarding variety and value. Collectively, these observations send a clear signal to the research community: There is a need to review and redirect research exploring retail patronage phenomena in general, and mall choice in particular.

The primary purpose of this paper is to provide additional perspective and exploratory evidence regarding the consumer shopping tendencies and motives underlying mall shopping. Individually, most of the points raised are neither new nor particularly difficult to accept. However, in addition to being dated and limited in quantity, an integration of the several explanations implied in past research has not been provided to date. Accordingly, a synthetic view of the general retail patronage literature is provided. In addition, given the zeitgeist in consumer research, consideration must be given to affective dimensions of this form of behavior.

In the following discussion mall shopping is viewed as a relative choice phenomenon, i.e., a consumer chooses to shop at malls over other outlets and chooses some malls over other malls where this choice is given-- patronage is contingent upon the choice alternatives. Furthermore, mall patronage doesn't occur in the abstract, it is a context-driven choice. A consumer may (prefer/ expect to) shop malls for clothes, but not for home electronics; they may shop malls when many purchasing needs exist but few solutions have been identified (e.g., holiday gift shopping); or, they may shop malls when pressed for time. In addition, those who have certain shopping orientations may prefer to shop at malls, as in the case of the browser. Mall shopping can also reflect more economic, or functional, shopping orientations because they provide a convenient/efficient way to comparison shop across a variety of goods, and/or a way to complete several purchase tasks in one trip. As implied in these examples, shopping tendencies and motives can provide several promising bases for the exploration of mall choice.


Previous research on the topic of mall/center choice and patronage can be classified as falling into three categories: gravitational attraction of shopping centers (cf. Gautschi 1981; Nevin and Houston 1980); the dimensions and predictive power of shopping area image (cf. Gentry and Barns 197778; Howell and Rogers 1980; Wee 1985); and the motivational and experiential aspects of mall shopping (cf. Bellenger, Robertson, and Greenberg 1977; Bloch, Ridgway, and Sherrel 1989). Despite their dissimilar methodologies and focal points, the results of these studies can be integrated.

An important starting point in the process of investigating mall patronage phenomena is to recognize that, while most consumers shop at malls, some shoppers are clearly more frequent and more likely shoppers. This general premise has been explored by examining the influence of driving time/distance and center size (mass) on area/center/mall patronage (cf. Brunner and Mason 1968; Bucklin 1967; Cooke and Cox 1970). This gravitational explanation for mall/area attraction is highly touted because of the predictive capability that has been observed. Yet, findings have been sufficiently different from study to study to give pause. One concern is that the gravitational "pull" varies across the population centers chosen for study (see Cooke and Cox 1970). Clearly, the infrastructures and population patterns have a bearing on this relationship, as does the commercial development communities' adherence to and/or (self-fulfilling) instigation of these patterns.

Given the effects that have been observed and the variance in the transportation infrastructures and the population patterns of cities the gravitational view must continue to be tested. However, it is important to remind ourselves that shoppers are not inexorably drawn to a trading area. They make choices given the alternatives and the facilitating and inhibiting conditions that prevail in a given market (or from some point in the market to some other point). While driving time/distance may be related to mall choice, given the increased demands on time resources, this applies to all retail choices. Thus, the concept offers little in the way of explaining the relative choice of shopping at a mall over other alternatives. This finding does not explain the success of downtown redevelopment efforts (cf. Maronick and Stiff 1985), nor does it explain the (implied) success of mall developer/retailers who present the right "mix" of stores to the market (cf. Carlson 1990). In attempting to attract shoppers, mall operators promote a specific identity for their facility and devise programs designed to woo the shopper. Additionally, the choices that exist often vary in quality of location, clientele attracted, safety, ease of parking, etc.. Clearly, something more than mass/ distance is at work here and we need to look elsewhere for an explanation of mall/area patronage. There are two ways to go about this task.

Several authors have noted that the gravitational explanation rests on the assumption that shopper perceptions of retail alternatives are equivalent or irrelevant (cf. Gautschi 1981; Gentry and Burns 1977-78; Nevin and Houston 1980; Wee and Pearce 1985). One approach is to add these factors to a gravitational model. When these factors are incorporated a significant improvement in explanatory power has been found. However, this approach is not without its problems. While store images have been the subject of considerable study (cf. Lindquist 1974-75; Peterson and Kerin 1983), shopper images of the range of mall, area and center types note above have tot. Measurement has basically involved various "adaptations" of the instruments developed for stores/store-types. While attempts have been made to address this problem, dissimilar measures have been used and, as a result, there has been no consensus reached. Nevin and Houston (1980) provide the most systematic approach, while others have sampled a greater range of attributes (Dowell and Rogers 1980; Wee 1985). A related matter is the comparability of-these measures and their basic structure. For example, while Howell and Rogers (1980) felt their measure compared favorably to the findings reported by Nevin and Houston, their solution produced 5 underlying dimensions versus the 3 reported by Nevin and Houston (see also Houston and Nevin 1980). Wee (1985) used 31 attributes and derived 4 factors. Each of these studies used non-comparable items and applied the measures of image to a mix of "shopping area," including downtown centers, malls, and unspecified "areas." A related issue that persists is whether the basic structure of mall/area image is consistent across venues/types. Though Nevin and Houston found considerable stability, there were important-differences=.between the image components of downtown and "outlying" shopping areas. This indicates that shoppers do not judge these entities on the same dimensions. Each of these issues will need to be resolved- before image or image-enhanced gravitational explanations of patronage can be accepted.

There is a more fundamental issue that also requires attention. In the studies noted, the importance of the attribute dimensions is inferred from the structural findings (which are, as we have noted, inconsistent across studies). This is crucial because of the explanation that typically accompanies the findings of gravitational pull: Consumers who frequent malls/areas/centers in a manner consistent with the gravitational model are said to be doing so because they wish to be economical with respect to time and other resources. Shoppers seek to minimize resource expenditures and maximize search or other benefits derived from patronage. The assortments provided in a shopping area provide utility, as can proximal location. Upon close examination, there are, in fact, several possible motivations and behavioral dispositions implicated in such an explanation. Based upon the analysis provided below it is predicted that some shoppers will be attracted to malls/centers for economic motives (e.g., for matters of convenience, search efficiency, etc.), while others may be attracted for affective reasons.

One study did investigate the importance of area attributes and produced an interesting finding. Gentry and Burns (1977-78) reported that, while shoppers felt a variety of center/area attributes were important, driving time (a factor associated with the gravitational view) was the best predictor of past patronage activity. In focusing only on past behavior, the Gentry and Burns study leaves open the question as to whether the same finding holds with respect to shopping intentions or future behavior. It is clear that additional empirical evidence is needed regarding the impact, or lack of impact of the influence implied in the "importance' measure. However, the importance explanation provides a bridge to the second basic explanation for mall choice.

From a broader perspective, the importance of mall/area attributes will be a function of shopper motives and behavioral tendencies of the shopper (see Westbrook and Black 1985). Given this view, it is apparent that other means of incorporating the influence reflected in importance measures are available. The conjecture that accompanies gravitational research and research focused on the nature and influence of image factors has touched upon several motivational dimensions of shopping. Given the assortment of goods presented, a mall should be attractive to functional browsers (e.g., those who search on a continuing basis to solve future problems), as well as recreational browsers (see Bloch, Ridgway and Sherrel 1989). To the degree shopping task requirements have even been partially defined, mall settings offer the opportunity for greater search efficiency due to the close proximity of a greater number of choice alternatives. Malls also provide an efficient means of "getting ideas" when the purchase has been only loosely-specified (see Jarobe and McDaniel 1987). Browsing behavior also creates an opportunity for impulse purchasing, i.e., "If I see something I like, I buy it." While the "looking" behavior constitutes a form/facet of browsing, the basic orientation of the impulsive shopper may be directly satisfied by the number of opportunities (or temptations) the mall environment provides.

Multi-purpose shopping tendencies/motives are also compatible with the mall environment. This relationship may be particularly important because of the demands on time already noted; it may also reflect the reluctance or apathy of some shoppers (Tauber 1972). As noted by Stoltman, Anglin and Gentry (1989), multi- purpose shopping can take many forms. For example, it can be deemed as a general tendency to combine shopping trips/needs, or it may be contextually-defined, e.g., one may tend to shop in this way for clothing or groceries, but not for appliances. Though the importance of the concept seems obvious, it has received little attention. In offering a different twist on gravitational models of center patronage, Ghosh (1986) briefly commented upon the importance of multi-purpose shopping to both the shopper and the | retailer. The possibility should be explored further. t Malls would afford those pursuing a multi-purpose i agenda the opportunity to do so more effectively and : in a pleasant environment.

The motives and shopping orientations noted here represent distinct, though related, reasons why (some) individuals would prefer to shop at malls. As suggested by May (1989; see also Jarobe and McDaniel 1987), it is unreasonable to categorize mall shoppers as either recreational or economic, or to expect that a single motive underlies this form of f shopping (see also Westbrook and Black 1985). Consequently, we conducted an exploratory analysis of the full complement of motives and orientations noted above. In addition, given the findings from gravitational studies, the role of driving time was examined. Rather than explore image per se, we also tested the explanatory power of mall/center attribute importance. While formal hypotheses were f not tested, the preceding discussion indicates the t relationships expected. Mall shoppers would 0 exhibit a tendency to be economically motivated, to engage in multi-purpose shopping, and to be 0 browsers. These orientations/motives were measured in several ways to gain further insights.


The data analyzed here are drawn from a data base created using a 15-page survey that examined a range of shopping behaviors and influences. One thousand surveys were distributed in a midwestern city (combined population approximately 200,000) across the-42 census tracks, in proportion to the size of the census track, and randomly within tracks. The procedure used (i.e., drop- off/mail-back), the questionnaire length, and the absence of response incentives yielded 289 usable questionnaires. This rate compares favorably to several previous studies, but is low enough to be of concern. Analysis of the sample characteristics and the market demographics indicated a high-level of comparability existed. However, seven low-income tracts had lower response rates.

Three shopping choice alternatives were examined: a mall, the downtown area (a four-square block mixed-use development), and the largest shopping plaza in the market. At the time of the study, the downtown area was being considered for a major redevelopment effort. An enclosed two-story "mall" was part of the downtown center, but, as in many downtown areas, the shopping center was spread in a loose fashion over a several block area. Furthermore, in the previous decade, two major local department stores had vacated the area. The area could aptly be described as transitional. The mall was formerly a shopping plaza which had been enclosed and which had received several "grafts" (including the addition of three additional department store anchors). The plaza was located on property adjacent to the mall development and it is more properly labeled a mini-mall. Because of the arbitrary nature of a square-footage measure (exacerbated in this case because of the manner these three properties were developed), driving time served as the measure of gravitational pull. Each of these locations offered approximately the same number of clothing stores/clothing outlets.

Specific measures of patronage were obtained within the context of shopping for clothes for reasons suggested by Peterson and Kerin (1983): shoppers make evaluations and decisions within a context, not in the abstract (see also Howell and Rogers 1980). Patronage was measured in several ways. The recency and frequency of purchasing clothing with respect to each of the retail options was measured using 6-point scales with categories ranging from "Never" (1) to "Last 2 days" (6), or to "Weekly" (6), respectively. Purchase intentions for the following 30-day period were measured using 4-point scale with categories ranging from "Very Unlikely" (1) to "Very Likely" (4). Respondents were also asked to provide an estimate of the driving time from their residence to each of the three locations. These are the same measures used by Nevin and Houston (1980), except they did not examine recent patronage. For the purposes of analysis all measures were standardized.

Two sets of attribute importance measures were also obtained; each required the respondent to consider mall/center features in the context of clothing purchases. The Nevin and Houston (1980) 16-item attribute list was adapted by for this purpose and importance was measured on a 7-point scale (1= "Very Unimportant", 7= "Very Important"). Four dimensions were identified via factor analysis. Previous research has been criticized for undersampling the attribute domain. Thus a separate and alternatively worded list-of 33 attributes was created based upon the work of Howell and Rogers (1980) as well as observations made during a series of in-depth and focus group interviews conducted prior to the development of the survey instrument. Respondents were asked to rate the desirability of the attributes using a 5-point scale (1 = "Very Undesirable" and 5 = "Very Desirable"). Six dimensions were identified based on a factor and reliability analysis. The identities, composition and reliability estimates for two sets of importance measures are reported in Table 1. While conceptually these dimensions seem related, the highest correlation across these two sets of measures was .36. The assortment measure obtained using the Nevin and Houston list was more strongly correlated with the second set of measures, and the four Nevin and Houston-based measures were most strongly correlated with the facilities dimension of the alternative measure. The additional shopping motive/orientation measures reported in Table 1 were obtained using 4-point frequency (1 = "Never" to 4 = "Very Frequently") and 5-point agreement (1 = "Strongly Disagree" to 5 = "Strongly Agree") response scales.


As was the procedure in several prior studies (Gentry and Bums 1977-78; Nevin and Houston 1980; Wee 1986), a step-wise regression was performed on the three criterion measures. The results are summarized in Table 1. While significant, the amount of variance accounted for is exceptionally low (prior studies often report R2 in the .20-.30 range). There are still several insights provided in these findings. Differences arise both as a function of the criterion and as a function of the mall/center examined. In particular, driving time is significantly related to past behavior (i.e., recency and frequency of mall/area patronage) for both the mall and downtown choice alternatives. This variable is the first to enter the regression equation in three of the four models. The relationship also appears stronger in the case of past mall patronage as defined by the amount of variance range accounted for in the models of recency and frequency. Also note that small, though significant gains are made in prediction through the addition of the other factors. As expected, the mall choice was significantly related to several of the shopping orientations and motives measures. In particular, impulse shopping is related to past behavior in the case of the mall and the plaza, yet related to shopping intention in the case of the downtown option. Browsing shows up in several of these models, and it too is more strongly related to past patronage. One orientation that consistently shows up is shopping frequency. Though one interpretation is that this is, essentially, a manipulation check, the finding can also mean that heavy shoppers are more likely to shop each of these areas. While the multi-purpose shopping orientation contributes in only two cases, both instances involve the mall choice. Frequency of shopping malls and future intentions are both related to this orientation. Finally, the sporadic contributions of the dimensions derived from the two sets of attribute importance measures should be noted. Overall, these measures do not contribute much, but the measures derived from Nevin and Houston seem better suited to a downtown center, while the alternative measures contributed in the models of mall patronage.


Since considerable variance is left unaccounted for (both here and in prior studies), attention should clearly be focused on measurement issues. Those used here may be inadequate in many respects, and undoubtedly there are better ways to operationalize and explore the logic presented in the introduction to this paper. It is also a certainty that important factors relating to mall choice have been omitted. Coupled with past findings (e.g., Gentry and Burns 1977-78; Nevin and Houston 1980), these findings point to the fact that different definitions of mall patronage (e.g., past as opposed to intended behaviors) must be examined. While economic factors captured in gravitational models (e.g., driving time) are predictive of past behavior, intentions are less influenced by this factor.

Differences also arose here across retail choice alternatives. In general, there is a need to begin exploring retail patronage in a manner which incorporates the range of intra-urban choices shoppers face. This may be particularly true when malls are compared to downtown areas because of the problems the latter have experienced. Additionally, many shopping "centers" do not compare favorably to most mall operations: malls tend to have more clearly defined images due to their relative newness, their amenities, the promotional programs (including both sales and image development strategies) and because they occupy a definable physical space. In most markets, alternatives exist such that both inter-type and intra-type choices must be made. That is, consumers would need to pick malls over options such as the central business district, strip plazas, direct marketing options (e.g., catalogs), etc. Beyond this, if several malls are accessible, the consumer must choose which malls to shop. Clearly, such choices will be guided by the presence/absence of certain stores (anchors), the relative accessibility of the mall (drive time, routing convenience, conditions of crowding), etc.. These possibilities must be explored.



Furthermore, given the choice alternatives, a consumer will tend to patronize malls to the extent the orientations and motives noted here are present and appropriate to the shopping task. Differences as a function of task may be important, indeed should be expected according to Peterson and Kerin (1983). At a minimum, this should be taken into account and a task-based frame of reference should be provided when asking patronage, choice, attitude, attribute importance, and image questions. The fact that the relationships reported here may be specific to clothes shopping needs to be explored. Mall shopping can either be defined as a general preference or pattern of shopping, or it may be defined within a given range of purchasing/shopping contexts, e.g., clothes or gift shopping. That is, malls may be viewed as more attractive choices under certain conditions and not others. In this study, mall patronage was explored on a relative basis (i.e., the explanatory framework was applied across several retail centers, including a mall), across several different manifestations of patronage, and within a specific context. The fact that different patterns emerged across retail choices needs to be explored further.

These findings need to be replicated and extended, with particular emphasis placed on the role of task influences. These influences can include, but are not limited to the following: need specificity (degree to which a product- level acquisition has been developed), urgency, solution familiarity (degree to which analogous situations have been previously encountered and successfully resolved -particularly at certain venues), etc.. Having focused primarily on clothes shopping, the generalizability of these findings across other categories is an open question. In addition, since the selection of any given retail alternative is also based on one's assessment of the mall's "performance" along dimensions of importance, the theory that underlies the image study approach to this question must be reviewed.

Finally, one issue stands above all others as deserving further development: A clearer understanding of the nature and influence of consumer motives is needed. The study of this issue promises to offer important insights across a number of research domains; however such clarity will not be achieved until additional conceptual and empirical efforts are made. The extant literature is limited in quantity and is equivocal on a number of issues. These empirical findings certainly offer little relief with respect to the last point, but several research directions clearly emerge from the approach discussed here. Given the amount of mall shopping that occurs, the possibility that mall shopping will be undergoing important changes in the next decade (see Turchiano 1990), and the number of directions that can be followed, there is clearly enough to occupy those consumer researchers who are attracted to this area. Significant resources are marshalled by practitioners in an attempt to stimulate, direct, and sustain patterns of patronage. However, we have basically neglected retail patronage phenomena. This circumstance has profound implications for the direction and status of this discipline. It is hoped that this session will promote the effort needed to begin filling the void that persists.


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