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Is Downtown Killing The Mall?

empty mall corridor
The Palm Springs Mall in December 2011. Photo by Randy Heinitz.

A mall was once something more than a convenient collection of stores gathered together. For Gen Xers and the older cohort of millennials especially, the mall was a social hub and gathering space.

Of course a mall’s main purpose was traditionally retail. But by including a variety of food options and entertainment offerings such as a multiplex or an arcade, mall designers sought to make a visit to the mall an event, not just an errand. Canny youths got so good at anticipating this frequently replicated design that they could develop what my then-teenaged daughter called a “sense of mall,” navigating a new space with ease.

Today those teens have grown up, and the lure of the mall has waned. The easy story is that internet shopping has undone the traditional mall, and certainly no one with a Wi-Fi connection has to drive anywhere to buy a pair of jeans or a new toaster. But a recent article in The Wall Street Journal suggested that many people are still willing to make a day of shopping. The destination has simply shifted.

The Journal article considers the example of Wausau, Wisconsin, as a representative of middle-class American shopping trends. While the city’s 39,000 residents spend about 30 percent more than the national average overall, the only nearby enclosed mall is struggling. For everyday necessities, Wausau residents shop largely online. But the city’s downtown shopping district also reliably draws in-person shoppers who are looking for unique finds and eager to support local businesses.

It does not take a lot of deep thought to understand why online shopping has expanded especially rapidly in places where driving to a store may take 40 minutes each way. But the interesting side effect of online shopping’s growth is that retailers who offer unique items – often small businesses with a connection to the local community – have gained a distinct competitive edge in the world of brick-and-mortar retail.

Wausau is not unique. The Los Angeles Times reported that Credit Suisse analysts estimate a quarter of existing U.S. malls could be out of business by 2022. The Guardian offered an even bleaker outlook, predicting less than half of today’s shopping malls will exist by then. Big anchor stores, such as Sears, collectively closed thousands of their locations in 2017. As malls lose tenants, attracting new ones becomes increasingly difficult. YouTuber Dan Bell has even turned dead and dying malls into a ghostly art form with his “Dead Mall” video series.

Some observers have argued that the mall’s decline was baked in from the beginning. “It’s much less about technology than it is about overbuilding,” Bruce Batkin, chief executive of commercial real estate lender Terra Capital Partners, told The Guardian. Batkin and others holding similar opinions say that there was simply too much retail space in the U.S. by the late 20th century, and that all but the best malls were bound to eventually decline. Online shopping, along with the 2008-09 recession, simply provided the catalyst.

Malls were not designed exclusively to meet retail needs, however; they were gathering places, not only for teenagers but for everyone from families taking children to meet Santa to retirees walking laps. They served as a sort of public square as well as a marketplace. This function has largely shifted to revitalized urban shopping districts. The handful of malls that continue to thrive often mimic such spaces, increasingly focusing on high-end dining, service and entertainment experiences, as well as unique items for purchase that you can’t simply buy more cheaply and conveniently on Amazon.

Mall of America, the country’s largest, serves as a prime example. It does not offer especially low prices for bargain-hunters; instead, it boasts a Nickelodeon-themed indoor park, cinemas, restaurants and a safe, clean place to walk that is always 70 degrees Fahrenheit (not unimportant in Minnesota). The mall staff routinely breaks Guinness world records to great fanfare and offers visitors unique experiences, such as a poet creating personalized, typewriter-generated poems for shoppers. In other words, Mall of America has successfully remained a destination for locals and tourists alike; the mall’s shops, in many ways, are simply a bonus feature.

Those shops, too, are evolving. Michael Sedlacek, the owner of Worker Bee, explained that he opened a raw-honey-tasting bar and shop in the Mall of America because people respond differently in that environment. “Buyers are confused right now,” Sedlacek told The Guardian. “Half of them want to sit on the couch and get everything delivered and the other half want to go out and taste some weird honey that tastes like marshmallow, something they have never tried before.”

The malls that survive will be those that offer something today’s shoppers find worth leaving home to experience. The rest will either find a second life of some kind or face outright destruction. Surely some people will feel a twinge of nostalgia at the end of the mall as it was, but if it becomes too much, you can always light a candle to recreate that pervasive Cinnabon smell while you shop from the comfort of your laptop.

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