Death of the American Mall

“I think now, we think of malls as these things that double as minimum security prisons or something because they’re so boring to visit and so walled in, and now they’re not the cool, new place to be.” -Jan Rogers Kniffen

I remember the first mall I ever visited. Woodland Hills Mall was located in what was then a remote field on the Southeast side of Tulsa, Oklahoma. As we were driving out to the mall, with absolutely nothing around it for miles, it seemed preposterous that anyone would drive so far just to go shopping. Yet, as history shows, people did drive that far. South Tulsa development boomed and billions of dollars were made in the process. Similar situations occurred in every major city across the country. Indoor malls, the very concept that one could shop at more than one store without being out in the elements, were exactly the solution shoppers were wanting.

Malls were wonderful. We hung out there. We met friends there. We dined there. We saw movies there. One could go to the mall when it opened at 10:00 AM and reasonably find enough things to do until it closed at 9:00 PM, provided one had sufficient financial backing. As my generation got older, malls were the safe place we would go to walk, get in that little bit of exercise our doctors keep hounding us to do. We saw school choir performances, fashion shows, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Malls were an integral part of our world.

Today, though, not only has that world changed, we have actively turned our backs on malls for the past ten or so years. When we look at the state of malls today no one can be surprised because we’ve not been going to malls except when there was no other choice. Our disdain with malls has become so severe, that the development companies that run the malls, such as Indianapolis based Simon Properties, are doing everything they can to even avoid using the word mall [source]. You’ll find “The Shoppes At Such-And-Such Crossing,” or, “BlahBlah Town Centre,” or even, “Whatchamacallit Village.” Anything is better than the word mall. The word is poison.

If we want to be honest, and many of us would rather not, malls themselves are poison. Malls have completely destroyed the retail economy and created an expectation among shoppers that there is always a sale, no one has to pay full price, and that you’re not a savvy shopper if your receipt doesn’t tell you how much money you saved. As a result, retailers operate on such a thin profit margin that they cut corners anywhere they can, especially in product production. Want to know why very little of what you buy is made in America or Europe? Blame the mall economy. In order for stores to survive, they’ve long had to resort to buying from whoever could produce goods the cheapest, even if that means they’re using slave labor. Just tell us we’re getting a good deal on that cashmere sweater and we’ll look the other way.

Mall developers, of course, are trying desperately to salvage their investments where they can. The battle is being lost, of course. We know that. We’ve known it long enough that when Business Insider ran a story on Thursday with the headline, “These haunting photos of the retail apocalypse reveal a new normal in America,” our first response is, “Yeah, and …?” The information in the article isn’t new. Neither are the pictures.

The day of the mall as a dominant shopping experience is not only over, it’s completely dead. There is very little reason for any city of any size to have more than one mall and very few reasons for stores, especially fashion retail, to participate in them. In their place, property developers would do well to look at alternatives that better fit the needs of generations younger than myself. Baby Boomers are no longer the demographic anyone needs to be courting unless they’re selling adult diapers and emergency bracelets. We need new ideas and I just happen to have a few suggestions.

Convert existing malls into self-sustaining communities

This is a concept that is already being tried in some of the more progressive, or perhaps desperate parts of the country [source]. Taking away the duplicate department stores selling slightly different versions of the same merchandise and replacing them with housing and workspace is a concept that has existed since at least 2007 but has found only a handful of developers willing to take a chance on the idea. By converting former mall properties in this way, developers have a chance to address multiple community issues such as affordable housing, food deserts, and urban blight. Such communities could go a long way in transforming challenging urban neighborhoods that have seen many retailers pack up and leave in recent years.

For this concept to work, though, requires not only the cooperation of retailers but business owners who might employ the people who would choose to live in such communities. Big tech firms such as Google and Apple have experimented with their own live/work campuses to varying degrees of success, but we’ve not seen non-tech companies grab hold of the concept at all. Success for this kind of development requires a variety of employers, including those who hire unskilled workers, or else the concept is ultimately unsustainable.

Better integration with online services

Online shopping is given a lot of the blame for the demise of mall shopping. Never mind that too many malls were built to be sustainable or that the mall economy ate its largest retailers for lunch. Online shopping is an economic force that is coming into its own and dominates not only retail but things like construction, shipping, and logistics. There are too many advantages to online shopping to everything that it is going to decrease in the near future.

What we’re still missing, though, is full integration between online ordering and brick-and-mortar stores. Some larger retailers, such as Home Depot and Walmart, have figured out the advantage of providing same-day pickup on items ordered online. Grocery giant Kroger launched a curbside pickup service earlier this year as well, though it has yet to fully capture grocery shoppers who are notorious for browsing the aisles. While these are a beginning, there is a lot more that could be done; things like ordering a garment online then having it fitted in-store or using stores as a basis for same-day delivery of items. No one really likes having to wait three to seven days for free ground delivery. Having retailers more tightly integrating brick-and-mortar stores with online services creates a winning scenario for everyone.

Build experiences, not shopping centers

Just a few miles away in Columbus, Ohio, developers and retailers are experimenting with a variety of different concepts that put an emphasis on having an experience rather than going shopping [source]. We already know that younger generations prioritize experiences over materialistic purchases [source]. Yet, retailers and developers are being extremely slow and cautious about latching onto that concept and creating spaces where shopping isn’t the main attraction. This is a situation that desperately needs to move beyond the experimentation in Columbus and into the mainstream as quickly as possible.

While Millennials get a lot of the blame/credit for this shift in thinking, the fact is that those of us who are older are rather tired of the old way of shopping as well. As we get older, we need a stronger reason for getting out of our climate-controlled houses than picking up a new pair of orthopedic shoes. We already know what size we wear, we can get those online and the nice delivery person brings them right to our front door. If someone wants us to leave home they need to start giving us all more reasons to do so. Give us new generation parks where we can watch our grandchildren play. Give us live theater that doesn’t cost as much as a week’s grocery budget. Build places that are never going to necessarily smell of commercial-grade disinfectant.

Solutions are there

I think what bothers me about the continued spate of articles such as those in Business Insider and Fashionista this week is that they’re not bringing to light any problems we haven’t known about for at least ten years. We’ve also known about the solutions equally as long. Yet, here we sit in 2017 still bemoaning the loss of the neighborhood mall.

Get over it. Malls are dead. We should celebrate their demise and move on to something more vibrant, more exciting, and does a better job of addressing the needs of the communities in which they reside. Americans like almost anything that is new and shiny and gives them a chance to feel good about themselves. There is a lot of space for creative developers and retailers to turn lackluster sales into booming business if they can just get away from the 50-year-old concepts that have dominated the industry since I was a child.

The time to make a choice is now. 2018 is going to be pivotal for many companies. The American mall is dead. Give us a new experience, though, and we’re there. Go ahead. Try us.

Abide in Peace,
The Old Man

Time is up for America's Malls
photo credit: charles i. letbetter

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