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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Valdai Center: Malling in Moscow

White-tiled, climate-controlled, lit up with chrome and Pyrex, Valdai Center could be any shopping mall in any city in the world.


For a mall, that's a compliment. When it comes to malls -- as conceived by 80 years of crafty urban planners -- local color is not the point. In the Novy Arbat's newest shopping complex, as in the developments that stud suburban America, the emphasis is on the comprehensive consumer experience.


Bruce Salter says it better. "When you've been in retail long enough, you can smell the atmosphere," says Salter, a Scotsman who will be running a baby products franchise in the mall. He is standing in his first-floor unit while workers solder together the interior, and mostly what you smell is sawdust.


Still, Salter has seen a lot of malls in his life, and he says the indicators look good for Valdai. "It's a good atmosphere. The layout is good. The mix is good. The traffic is exceptional."


The mix, layout, traffic and atmosphere of the Valdai Center are highly deliberate -- the product of painstaking planning by Irishman Jerry Donnelly, general manager of the center, which is affiliated with the Irish House. For instance: the double-unit Phillips store will act as the mall's anchor store, luring customers in off the Novy Arbat and past a clothing store, a bank and a coffee shop. A pedestrian walkway will link the Valdai Center to the Irish House grocery store. And the center's glassy facade, which allows passersby to see two stories of customers -- the effect is something like an ant farm -- draws a lot of attention, especially 50 meters from Dom Knigi.


Deliberateness is precisely the thing that distinguished the shopping mall proper from the world's other business districts when the first mall appeared in Kansas City in the mid-1920s. The mall pioneers used common-sense theories to control the flow of customers through an enclosed structure -- luring them through gift shops en route to hardware stores, or staggering escalators to force customers past displays. Valdai Center carries on in that tradition, points out Donnelly.


"We know it's a first for Moscow," he says. Although the mall is "mini by Western standards, it's major by Moscow standards, and it will be operated that way," he adds. The building's 10 units have been filled very carefully, with an eye toward future clientele. "Every store here has been chosen."


Perhaps as a result of that care, the Valdai Center is opening in tentative phases. Only two stores have opened thus far: an Adidas sporting goods franchise, having found a viable market for $120 track suits, and Ecco, a Danish shoe store.


The Phillips electronics store, which was originally scheduled to open weeks ago, has been teasing pedestrians with window displays of video and audio equipment -- technology so new that, in some cases, the equipment has not been given a price, says store manager John Reynolds.


All of this is in the interest of perfection. "We don't want to haphazardly put it in the market," Reynolds says. "We want to launch it."


So late in May, Phillips is planning a grand opening celebration with a "carnival-type atmosphere," says Reynolds. "There will be crowds in here."


There are crowds already. The sun pours down through the huge skylight past suspended blue deco squiggles that could only appear in a mall, onto a steady stream of customers, some of whom look a little shell-shocked. This is, after all, their first contact with The Mall.


"For older Muscovites, this might be a little alien," concedes Reynolds. "You do wonder, 'Will they be frightened off?'"


Alexander Suslenkov, manager of the second-floor Adidas store, says that the novelty of the mall concept is not just visual. "We are able to sell the same things, with the same quality, but for higher prices," he says. "I don't know why."


Welcome to the mysteries of 20th-century marketing. Valdai Center's new customers still look around the place with more reverence than is alloted to shopping malls in, say, Minnesota.


"Sure it's like a museum," says Andrei Dvoryenkov, one of the emerald-blazered security guards. "With these prices, what else could it be?"