by Stacia Friedman
In 1963, the King of Prussia Mall ate Philly’s lunch (and dinner) by offering high-end shopping in the western burbs. No need to schlep into the city anymore. Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdales, Lord & Taylor and Macy’s were now at the one percenters’ doorstep. Along with Coach, Cole Hahn and Louis Vuitton.
What did this mean for Philly? It meant that, although Walnut Street west of Broad continued to attract prestigious brands, the retail boom in the city had gone bust, replaced, in part by the “restaurant renaissance.” When suburbanites come to the city now, it isn’t to buy a $3,000 handbag. It’s to have dinner.
So why then did the King of Prussia Mall just do an estimated $250 million expansion? Superficially, they wanted to create an indoor walkway joining what had been two separate parts of the Mall. (Why should anyone in need of an Armani silk necktie have to walk in the elements?) Ironically, the original open-air walkway between the two sections is still there. They made no effort to enclose it. What they did was create a new covered bridge between the two structures.
But my recent visit tells me that the expansion wasn’t so much about sparing patrons the inconvenience of walking outdoors as it was about giving the area’s Super Rich a place to spend their money. Montgomery County has always been the most affluent county in Pennsylvania. The King of Prussia Mall wisely calculated that if “you build it, they will come.” Thanks to their recent expansion, local millionaires (and billionaires) no longer have to take a limo and their cash to Manhattan to shop at Jimmy Choo, Diane von Furstenberg or Yves Saint Laurent. For their convenience, Hermes, Tiffany’s and Cartier’s are now nestled right next to one another.
I chose to visit before Labor Day Weekend while most Main Liners were putting the finishing touches on their tans in Stone Harbor or Martha’s Vineyard. I wanted to see how the Mall looked before the back-to-school onslaught. With the serious moolah still out of town, most of the shoppers seemed to be roving bands of suburban teens, seniors who view any mall as a jogging track and people like me who came to see what the big deal was about.
The new layout is a bit overwhelming. I picked up a map at one of the many information kiosks which offer digital listings. Can’t find what they did with The Pottery Barn? Not to worry. The digital kiosk works like a GPS. Still, a stranger approached me and asked where the Brighten jewelry store is. Neither of us could figure out its location. It was there. Somewhere.
Apple was the only store that was jam-packed. Next came Starbucks where patrons stood in line solemnly like heroin addicts waiting for their methadone. The Cheesecake Factory seemed to be doing big business (in spite of the Surgeon General’s warnings) with patrons standing in line when I arrived and when I left three hours later.
Of the 50 new retailers, the majority are not targeting me. They are aiming for high rollers. I can’t afford to even window shop at Gucci. That also goes for the new restaurants. I read the menu at Morton’s as if it were a fairy tale. Forty dollars for an entrée, not including the sides at $13 each. Dinner for two with wine? I can’t count that high. That won’t be a problem for Morton’s, which is counting on feeding lawyers, financiers and Sixers’ players.
For Mall visitors with big appetites and smaller wallets, there’s a new food court called Savor King of Prussia offering casual dining provided by Shake Shack, Sweetgreen, Hai Street Kitchen and The Fat Ham. But, hey, the old food court with pizza, chicken fingers, salads, smoothies and Chinese food is still there. If you’ve got kids, this might still be the best bet for finicky eaters.
As I was leaving, I spotted a “Code of Conduct” posted by the Mall exit. It stated that “appropriate clothing is required.” Huh. So much for all the bare-legged young women I saw in skimpy shorts and flip flops. Secondly, it said that “disruptive behavior is prohibited.” Does that mean no toddler melt-downs in the Lego Store? But it was the third commandment that floored me. “No weapons.”
I would have loved to be in the room when the Mall CEO reasoned with his legal team, “Look, guys, if we list weapons at the top, it will frighten shoppers.” Then there was the last commandment: “Possession of open alcoholic beverages is not permitted except in designated places.” Right. You can get sloppy drunk at Happy Hour in the restaurant of your choice and have no idea where you parked your car. Just don’t sit in a massage chair and chug a Bud.
Mt. Airy resident Stacia Friedman is a freelance writer and author of the comic novel, “Tender is the Brisket.”