Baseball may be America’s pastime but shopping was always a close second. After World War II, shopping became as much a social activity as a necessary one for things that were needed. After the war, as America moved out of cities and to the suburbs, concentrations of stores, started to pop-up. At first strip malls started to pop-up and then the shopping mall. Based on an Austrian concept of an indoor place where multiple shops and living spaces could be build, these massive buildings were powered by tax incentives and cheap land outside cities.
Places to shop were necessary as people left cities with downtown districts where stores were concentrated. This change in shopping habits decimated downtown districts and that was only exacerbated when large discount retailers like Wal-Mart and Target arrived. For the remainder of the 20th century, shopping malls were the premiere shopping destinations. Malls dotted the landscape and provided a certain uniformity to shopping. Upon arriving to any mall there were certain stores and certain experiences that you could expect.
Malls became a center of American life. Malls decorated for the season and especially were destination during the Christmas shopping season. Fully 3 generations of kids visited malls for the latest toys, clothes and to see Santa.
The Mall Dethroned
Stores are closing throughout the United States. There is a big pull back in retail in the US market. There are some business factors to that. The big tax breaks that allowed malls to flourish have disappeared. Businesses could operate them almost tax free. Also, the US had an inordinate amount of retail space as compared to other countries. However, the biggest change in shopping came economically. After the 2008 crash and the resulting credit crunch, American’s pared back spending. Middle-tier stores like popular anchors Sears, JCPenney, and Belk were less popular as people traded those stores for lower priced options. While Malls have been closing Dollar Tree and Dollar General have seen and uptick in sales.
Many people blame online retailers like Amazon for the death of the mall, however the numbers just don’t add up. E-commerce only represents about 14% of the US retail market, not really enough to have an effect on the physical retail environment. Americans still go to stores to shop, however, where they shop is changing. Many malls have tried to reinvent themselves. Some have been redeveloped with different stores and some have been torn down and re-conceived entirely as outdoor shopping spaces where people can drive up to a store, get what they need and leave like a traditional downtown shopping area.
But What About Malls as Social Space?
Malls were not merely places where shopping could take place either. For at least 2 generations of kids, the mall was just not a place to shop. It was the place where you might talk to a romantic interest for the first time, take them on a date to a restaurant in the food court, or just casually walk around and enjoy the public space in between the stores. The loss of the Mall is not just a loss for shopping, it’s also a loss of a crucial “3rd space” that was an important part of American social life. Many people over 25 or 30 have great memories to participating in mall culture and mall life. Not only the shopping but the walking around, talking with friends, and carrying iconic bags from iconic stores.
What Replaces the Mall?
Not all Malls necessarily need replacement. Many Malls are doing just fine, especially if they are close to a larger city. Luxury malls that sell luxury brands like Armani, Gucci, Hermes, and Louis Vuitton are also doing very well. 2 things have already replaced the mall as a social space: the smartphone and the death of the middle class. People and their kids/teens have less disposable income than they did in the past and that means that there is less money to spend on shopping. Lower prices become crucial for family budgets and finding a cheaper and easier way to connect is essential. The smartphone has replaced the need to connect physically for many kids. Why hop a ride to a mall when you can just as easily contact your friends at all times via various apps? For parents, it can be easier to look both online and in-store for a cheaper price on an item and get great selection to boot.
The shopping mall will never fully go away, however, they are become more like the original design: shopping with condos and apartments in the same space. There will be fewer malls and less retail space overall. Shopping will continue to move online, especially as grocery shopping becomes more popular online as well. Although it is sad to see shopping malls go away, consumer tastes and habits change over time and the reality is that malls just don’t fit into that anymore.