Captive Animals

“Speed and efficiency are not in themselves signs of intelligence or capability or correctness. They do not carry with them any moral value. They don’t necessarily make any social contribution. The most horrifying, violent moments of the twentieth century have centered around regimes wedded to efficiency and to speed” (John Ralston Saul, 2013: 260).


“Born Ready” @Mark O’Connell 2017

Michael Snow’s flock of Canada Geese perpetually take flight, their frustrated bid for freedom encased in a great glass ceilinged atrium that rises six stories high. Elsewhere, escalators carry bodies up and down like electrical currents or a pulse. The living pulse within an inanimate, amalgamate micro-climated environment that accommodates this seemingly unending stream. Humans akin to microbes or cels circulate throughout the structural entity, an entity that takes their money, and delivers unto them merchandise. Within this great macro-retail manifestation, under the ubiquitous glowing apple logo that is the only signage on the front façade of the Eaton Centre Apple Store, there is a mass of bodies that span the entire front of the retail operation that can be observed upon approach. This is partially because there is no door, the store is completely open all along the edge that faces the mall. Even as you approach the storefront there is a buzz of energy, there are several staffers by the front entrance who are scheduling appointments for people as they enter the store. They function as tour guides, telling people about mall, and asking the shoppers about themselves. there are at least two and they are both friendly and chatty. They function as a bridge between the mall flow outside and the store activities within. One you enter the store the atmosphere is loud, chaotic, people are clustered around the display items on the many tables. The staffers have special shirts identifying them as workers in the store environment, but otherwise there are no visible areas of the store that are off-limits to customers and the interactions are taking place throughout the store, there is no focal point. This is designed as a “free” space, one in which former rules of retail do not seem to apply. The retail spatial access has been democratized.

There seems to be a high ratio of staff to customers: fifteen staff on the floor to approximately sixty customers. The lighting is very bright and the space is painted a gunmetal grey. There must be air pumped in because it does not feel stuffy despite the high volume of bodies crowding the space, the lack of a front wall also helps reduce what might otherwise be a claustrophobic milieu. There are sales associates who are directing traffic, the flow is organized, they can be observed bringing product to people who wait leaning on high tables or perched on stools at the back. The levels of tables, and the shelving down the side walls are all of a consistent height and form a planar bisection of the room. Or would if there weren’t so many bodies mixing and mingling in the aisles between them obscuring the view. There are noticeable pods or clusters of activity as shoppers engage with the tester samples and discuss with each other the merits and the functionality of the merchandise offered for sale on this day. There is a noticeable good mood overall in the clientele and the staffers. The demographics are mixed: some parents with kids, a lot of young people in groups. Racially it seems to be very mixed and the gender balance shows a slightly higher proportion of men in the store, but not by much, maybe 60/40% tops.

Some questions that come to me as I watch the movements and interactions of everyone within the Apple store microcosm: I am curious about the conversion rates of browsers to purchaser, and comparisons of these rates by age, and gender. I want to ask staff what kinds of questions they are asked most frequently and what the strangest questions are. I would like to see the human resources hiring parameters and peruse their training manual directives.

To what extent, Apple is employing analytics, Bluetooth tracking or various other forms of instore client identification or surveillance is debatable. But given their 2016 purchase of Emotient a company that engages in “consumer sentiment analysis”, which translates into a form of video surveillance that registers “miniscule movements in the face” it is probable that there is surveillance throughout. And although they profess to not use this technology to recognize specific individuals and track their engagement within the store environment:  “we do not want to recognize who is watching, all we care about is what they are watching and how they feel about it”. The possibilities of a technology like this within a retail environment are exponential. Whether the surveillance be at: “point of sale, point of entry, or in front of the shelf”. The company professes to “measure emotion and tell the store managers in that someone is confused in aisle 12” (Turow 2017: 229), technology that can measure that level of emotion from a distance is obviously able to identify and track individuals…buyer beware.

My educated guess is that most people who enter into the “free” Apple zone will emerge from its spatial parameters having engaged in a commercial transaction that will be recorded and compared with their online viewing and purchasing behaviours. A closer look at the conversion statistics and the datasets that are compiled on each consumer would be a way to prove my unfounded assumption. And although it would be hard to gain access to this sort of data, the global success of the Apple brand speaks to the viability of the in-store model pioneered by Apple. This is a new form of retail, one that is de-centralized and removes hierarchy of environment, (and even the materiality) from the commercial interaction. The removal of the physical anchor of the sales counter that traditionally divides the space (and experience) is significant, as it radically alters the dynamics, modalities and roles of the interaction between clerk and client. My own experience within this environment without traditional buffers, barriers and boundaries, is that I was approached frequently, in a friendly but persistent way, and it obviously proved effective as I ended up buying something before I left that day.


“Pandora’s Box” @Mark O’Connell 2017

“People who inhabit these arcades: the signboards with the names have nothing in common with those that hang beside respectable entryways. Rather, they recall the plaques on the railings of cages at the zoo, put there to indicate not so much the dwelling place as the name and origin of the captive animals” (Walter Benjamin “First Sketches, Paris Arcades 1927-1930” The Arcades Project 1999: 827).


“Ascension” @Mark O’Connell 2017

Benjamin, Walter, and Rolf Tiedemann. The Arcades Project. Harvard University Press, 1999.
Turow, Joseph. The Aisles Have Eyes: How Retailers Track Your Shopping, Strip Your Privacy, and Define Your Power. Yale University Press, 2017.
 Saul, John Ralston. Voltaire’s bastards: The dictatorship of reason in the West. Simon and Schuster, 2013.


“Big Self” @Mark O’Connell 2017


“Flaneur” @Mark O’Connell

@Mark O’Connell 2017, all rights reserved, no reproduction without permission

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