Shopping malls attract many different types of visitors during their hours of operation. Some are destination shoppers, who have specific needs and specific stores in mind. Others prefer to browse favorite stores and perhaps make a few impulse buys along the way. There are those shopping mall visitors who have little intention of actually shopping, and tend to use the venue as a teenage pastime or hang out. Such a person is known as a mall rat.
A mall rat is generally an adolescent who spends much of his or her spare time congregating with friends at a local shopping mall. Sometimes a mall rat is actually employed at one of the mall's stores or restaurants, but it can be in the mall rat's best interest to remain unaffiliated with any of the mall's tenants. It would not be unusual for most store employees and managers to be very familiar with a regular crowd of mall rats.
Besides congregating in the public areas of a shopping mall, mall rats may also travel from store to store in small packs. Mall security officers tend to watch these packs very closely, since incidents of vandalism or shoplifting are often observed by store owners. A seasoned mall rat may also harass other customers verbally or make life difficult for shoppers in general.
A mall rat generally knows the inner workings of a shopping mall better than most casual visitors. By networking with mall employees and running their own reconnaissance missions, mall rats often learn of new store openings or other developments weeks in advance. The relationship between mall employees and mall rats can be one of mutual respect as long as the basic rules of engagement are strictly observed.
Writer and director Kevin Smith put the mall rat phenomenon on the public radar with his film Mallrats. In the film, a group of mall rats and fashionistas aimlessly roam through a typical shopping mall, occasionally interacting with sympathetic mall employees or avoiding detection by mall security officers.
Because a shopping mall provides many creature comforts for its visitors, it can be a very popular destination for unemployed or underemployed adolescents with little spending money and little else to do. A mall rat wants to socialize with his or her friends, but this may be problematic in a real world setting. A shopping mall provides a safe environment in which teens and young adults can congregate on equal ground. Perhaps this explains the appeal of a shopping mall to restless adolescents looking for excitement and companionship.