I realized as I wrote the title of this post that I might have answered my own question. I have no idea how malls are faring. I haven’t stepped foot inside a mall (Concord, Christiana, Fairfax Shopping Center, Meadowood Shopping Center, Prices Corner, etc.) in almost two years. I’ve been to Kohl’s three times in the last two years, tho – does that count?
The slow death of the American shopping mall is not evenly distributed. A disproportionate number of recent high profile store closure announcements have been in communities that are already struggling. It’s creating a retail Rust Belt. This version of the Rust Belt won’t be as easy to wrap up into a political platform as the manufacturing Rust Belt, and creates different types of challenges for the communities impacted.
The bad news for physical retail seems to come in waves, and last week was a particularly bad one. Macy’s announced another round of store closures. Sears did as well. The Limited announced it was closing all of its brick and mortar stores to focus on its online business. This is all happening in an overall reasonably good economy, with an unemployment rate below 5 percent and accelerating wage growth. The next recession, whenever it comes, is likely to produce a “shock and awe” moment for malls and physical retail.
If stores are closing in certain communities in an “overall reasonably good economy” then I question Conor Sen’s theory. I’d say it has to do with specific stores rather than the mall that houses them. I know people that will drive for 40 minutes to shop at Trader Joe’s, Bed, Bath and Beyond, or Wegman’s – and I have my theories as to why.
Yes, a big part of this is online shopping. I’d estimate that 95% of my shopping is online, mainly because I can purchase exactly what I need. I don’t have to worry about driving to a mall, fighting to park, and the lengthy trek to the mall entrance across an ugly parking lot, only to find out that what I went there for is out of stock, isn’t the right size, or the promoted “sale” excludes the item I wanted. If you see me at a mall, chances are there was a household emergency – like the coffee maker died. I need my coffee!
I’ve even taken to ordering certain groceries online – the big bulky items (drinks, toilet paper, paper towels, etc.) that are a pain to carry, along with cleaning supplies and things like granola bars, pasta, soups, etc. which last a long time. Now, when I go to the grocery store I shop the perimeter – produce, meats/fish and dairy. It’s so much easier. And faster.
Where I’m heading with this is that I don’t think it’s the malls. I think it’s the dismal stores on offer – and I’d bet the people in these suburban communities with failing malls (that are really unwelcoming and lack character, to boot) drive past those malls to shop elsewhere. And where they’re shopping is the key. Sure, they may be like me and hit Amazon far too often, but when they’re dashing out to the store they’re bypassing their local mall. Let’s face it, once you have to drive somewhere, it isn’t really a big deal to add 5 or 10 minutes to your trip.
The big department stores strike me as dinosaurs on their way to extinction. Macy’s, Boscov’s, Sears, Penny’s, etc. lack focus. Today’s shoppers seem to veer towards two types of stores: Specialty stores like Bed, Bath and Beyond, Anthropologie, Sephora, or stores like Target and Walmart that offer everything – apparel, housewares, a drug store and food. Add given the size of department stores, it’s no wonder our convenience society doesn’t want to waste time getting to the Housewares Department – which will hopefully (fingers crossed!) have the coffee maker we need.
Conor Sen writes about dying malls the same way people write about food deserts in poor neighborhoods. But they aren’t really the same. Dying malls exist due to its surrounding community making choices not to shop there (because the majority of lower to middle income people are still shopping, they just aren’t offered the stores they like.) while food deserts aren’t due to the communities choice – they don’t have a choice; most don’t have a car. That’s where there is actually a problem.
The way they are the same is due to capitalism. Stores close if people don’t shop there. It’s that simple. And there are plenty of stores that cater to lower and middle class people. Open a Target in one of these dying malls and see what happens, if you don’t believe me.
And isn’t it really the Targets and Walmarts that have hurt these malls? Isn’t it their appeal of “one stop shopping” and “lower cost” that has people choosing them over malls? Aren’t these stores the ones that have taken customers away from malls? My guess is yes.
He goes on to point out:
These store closures aren’t being evenly distributed. Companies are keeping, even investing in, their most vibrant and profitable stores, which tend to be in wealthy communities. It’s the least profitable ones, oftentimes in stagnant, lower-to-middle-income suburban communities, that are being shuttered.
The loss of big box stores and eventually malls means a loss of social and communal space for communities at a time when there are fewer and fewer social ties between us.
First, other than teenagers hanging out and retired people using the space to power walk, who uses a mall as social and communal space? I have never gone to a mall and thought, “What a great way to be part of the community and socialize!” Have you? I usually entered a mall ticked off at all the idiot drivers in the parking lot while estimating how quickly I could leave and hoping they had enough cashiers to make my experience short. That’s probably my problem, but going to a mall = frustration in my book. It’s a “have to” not a “want to”.
As far as his claim that high end stores are thriving, I wondered where they were located…
A walk through Midtown Manhattan or Union Square in San Francisco would suggest that physical retail is not going away, but its new iteration does not give much hope to a lot of communities in the process of losing their malls.
There’s a key word in that sentence. Walk. Foot traffic is a malls life’s blood. Walking past a store is very different than driving to a store. Walking past a store means you’re already there, and I’d bet it leads to increased impulse buying. The same thing goes once you’re inside a mall – walking past stores you hadn’t planned on entering.
He goes on to point out:
The emerging form of physical retail is “experiential retail,” as has been built at Santana Row in San Jose, California, or Avalon in Alpharetta, Georgia. It tends to be high-end development with a mix of uses including residential, dining, shopping and perhaps some office or hotel space. It’s great for the communities that can afford it, but chef-driven restaurants and a handful of luxury boutique shops don’t make economic sense most places.
Know what he’s describing? A city. A place where people live, work, shop be entertained, and eat without needing a car. There’s your “social and communal space for communities”.
How we live and shop is changing. Anchor stores are no longer anchors – they are simply inconvenient obstacles that we maneuver through to get to Williams-Sonoma. For myself, I know that when I use to go to the mall I’d always park near an entrance that didn’t make me walk through a department store to get to where I wanted to go. I’d already made my choice and the anchor store wasn’t it – it just slowed me down. BTW, there always seems to be plenty of parking at the Sear’s end of Concord Mall. Why is that? (I know the answer. People are still doing what I did.)
And smaller malls (as well as some larger ones) were designed to be driven from end-to-end, not walked. That’s a problem, because once you get back in your car how likely are you to drive to the other end of the mall, park, get out and go to another store? Be honest, how many times have you blown off that stop in order to just be done?
Malls aren’t dead, but unless they change many will be. Shopping has become more targeted, more specific. Malls need to adapt to what shoppers want. This isn’t a crisis. It’s an out-date business model. But there is a model emerging in high end communities – the city model. My bet is that this model will spread like technology – Like how a Virtual Reality system is out of most people’s price range now, but in a few years everyone will have one.
The truth is: Once you get in your car to go shopping you have choices. And shoppers are making them.
There are 5 traditional malls within roughly 20 miles of each other where I live. 3 of the malls are larger than Christiana Mall, the other two are about the same size. Four of them have Macy’s Department stores. The only Macy’s slated to close is the one at the mall in the poorer part of the city. Although I’m not really a shopper ,I have accompanied my bride to two of these malls and they seemed to be bustling places. The one closest to me is 3 miles away. In addition to the 170+ mall stores, there is a Whole Foods attached and a Total Wine across the street. Across the other street is a Ross, TJ Max, Home Goods, etc. And still across the other street is a massive Lowes and a Kmart. So at least that area offers pretty much one stop shopping for whatever you need, which I would argue is very convenient.
What is absolutely refreshing to me is that the traffic is still pretty light. Even though the region rates poorly for traffic, whoever did the ratings has never driven Kirkwood Highway or 202.
I agree, malls are on the way out, I never go there either. Part of it is online sales, I do it all the time but never for food or necessities, but I could see that changing as well. As noted in upscale and rich areas there are more than a few eager merchants dying to cash in on the areas cash flow potential, out here in the country it’s watch malls wither and die. I well remember the great mall die off of the late seventies, this will not be as dramatic but the end result will be the same.
Interesting that The Limited filed chapter 11 today.
It seems that retail is definitely changing and online shopping is pushing some of that. I think that this gets more obvious as the bigger box stores retreat. Walmart did some retrenching last year, but Best Buy seems to be doing better than anyone expected.
I wonder, though, if this business about malls as social and communal space for communities strikes me as very strange. It is a place where a bunch of people are shopping, pretending to shop or watching other people shop. Asking these places to do more than they were ever designed to do — and even making shopping into some major communal event — strikes me as a recipe for some long term failure.
That made me wonder, as well. He seemed to be saying that they already were social and communal spaces and that their closing would be a loss of that communal and social space. It came across that people go to malls for things other than shopping.
And maybe I don’t see that due to where I live. Has anyone seen a mall function as a space where the community gathers and socializes?
Went to the Dover Mall for an eye exam, Boscov’s actually, and decided to wander the mall while I waited. Sad sums it up, Christmas gone and 99% of the shoppers with it. Nothing “communal” about it other than the community of businesses that are most likely going to have to do something else in the future.
You’re our reporter in the field!
I don’t think its really all that odd. Basically a mall is an indoor main street. Malls generally provide more seating and better aesthetics in communal areas than main street as well. Consider Rehoboth’s boardwalk. There are a shitload of stores and eateries but most people are there to watch people and never make a single purchase.
Personally, I have been an online shopper pretty much from the beginning (anyone remember Egghead.com?) But for some purchases, like TVs I think it is very helpful to see the product in person.
That makes sense in a resort town, where people on vacation (or retired) have nothing but time.
The last times I was at the Christiana and Concord malls I didn’t see a lot of people strolling and socializing. Mostly everyone seemed to be in a hurry. But, like I said, my experience with malls might be different.
I don’t remember Egghead.com! I do remember EToys!
Egghead got hacked way back when and the hackers got my credit card info. I noticed when I had a charge for a few thousand reubles. CC company said it was too little to pursue.
As for the boardwalk, my bride and I strolled it frequently and always without fail ran into people we knew doing the same thing. We all work full time.
Where do people do the communal thing then. I’m an atheist so church is out. I’m also pretty outgoing, I strike up conversations everywhere I go. I also get that people are not as likely to strike up a random conversation with a stranger once you’re above the canal.
“I also get that people are not as likely to strike up a random conversation with a stranger once you’re above the canal.”
That’s not really true. I have conversations with strangers all the time, and I live in the city. The boardwalk is more like a city/town Main Street than a mall, imo.
Communal/social things are found in neighborhoods, parks, restaurants and bars, neighborhood organizations/events, festivals, theater/plays, etc.. I’m headed to Market Street shortly – guaranteed I’ll see people I know!
Amazon was still a book seller back then. The hack bankrupted Egghead and Amazon bought them.
Thanks for the info!
I guess my point is, why not a mall. All that beautiful open, airy space, with fountains, plants and columns, sheltered from the weather…what about it makes it inappropriate for communing?
It can be a mall, but I haven’t seen a mall used that way. The author of the article states that the closing of a mall results in a loss of a communal and social space. I haven’t seen that, nor have I heard that from my mall going friends/family. Most of them don’t look forward to going to the mall. It seems like a chore to them.
So, it’s not inappropriate, it’s just not the way I see malls used. (And I’ve said I’m limited to my location and experience.) I’m don’t see the mall as as a communal and social space. If I’m right (and I could be wrong) then what are we losing?
Now, turning malls into communal and social spaces might be a plan!
Kids do this communal and social thing in malls. They do it enough that malls restrict their presence and have mall security target them. Malls might provide some sense of community and social connection to some, but I think that is a pretty attenuated idea of community.
Rehoboth Mall is post apocalyptic. I still go to the Radio Shack there. I think it’s just them and a seamstress shop left. It’s a very strange but peaceful setting.(you get that last person on Earth feeling)
Good place to take a walk or just sit on a bench and gather your thoughts.
“Good place to take a walk or just sit on a bench and gather your thoughts.”
Or you could, you know, go to the beach. 😉