Once upon a time a mall/shopping center was mostly a place to dash into, survey the stores' merchandise, make a purchase and run. Not any more! Gone or going are the plain rows of stores anchored by a department store at each end. Now malls sprawl at angles, circle around fountains and sprout palm trees and lush landscaping in a crisp, cool atmosphere, regardless of the heat outside. Glass elevators carry shoppers to multi-level promenades lined with enticing stores.

But there's more than cosmetic changes in Florida's new malls. They are great places to browse the displays that artfully fill store windows; meet and greet friends, have lunch or dinner in a sidewalk café or casual eatery, maybe see a movie and definitely shop-till-you-drop, all under one soaring skylit roof!

All major malls are anchored by department stores and the names indicate local demographics. Anchor stores cater to bargain hunters at off-price and discount stores like Marshalls, TJ Maxx and Loehmann's and to mid- to upper-range savvy shoppers at Sears, J.C. Penney, Dillards, Macy's, Burdines and Lord & Taylor. Distinctly upscale stores such as Bloomingdales, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus are generally found in fewer shopping centers, sometimes alongside some of the world's best-known designer names from the Armani, Chanel and Versace super-league.

National names such as Foot Locker, Gap, Old Navy, and The Limited appear in a large number of Florida malls, while independent specialty and niche shops and boutiques make up the rest of the average mall's hundreds of stores. Outlet stores and factory shops are usually clustered in specialist malls which range in size from tens of stores to the high hundreds in mega-malls.

Wherever you go in the Sunshine State you're likely to find a cosmopolitan range of stores and merchandise. Some 12 million of the population of nearly 15 million, have moved from another state or country and their varied tastes, cultures and traditions influence the type of merchandise sold at mall stores serving specific communities. For example, well-traveled military families expect their favorite imports in stores near military bases. In Central Florida's tourist areas, (Orlando territory) visitors want to fill their shopping bags with bargains from name brand and outlet stores. In South Florida, mall merchandise is targeted to a multicultural community of residents and visitors in a bilingual environment.

Don't expect to find the same seasonal ranges of clothes in Florida as in colder climes. Sunclothes and sandals are sought by visitors at any time of year but you're unlikely to find heavy coats and boots in mall stores when Florida's temperate winters call for light sweaters and jackets. Ski wear is the exception; even though the snow is thousands of miles away, Floridians want to buy their ski gear on their home turf.

Apart from the shopping attractions, many malls have food courts, children's playgrounds and and multiplex movies. Special and seasonal events and promotions attract shoppers to antique and craft shows; pet shows, dance contests, cooking demonstrations and health and business expos. And as good neighbors, many Florida malls host fashion shows and parties for non-profits the community.

Use our interactive map to locate the mall nearest you, and bookmark this section for useful listings and links to more great shopping resources in coming editions of Absolutely Florida.