Throwback Thursday: Retail is Changing, Mall Over Again
Let’s start with a quiz. See if you can guess the years when these headlines appeared:
- “Anchor stores like JCPenney and Macy’s once drew crowds to suburban malls. Now their struggles could push hundreds of malls into extinction.“
- “Malls are dying. The thriving ones are spending millions to reinvent themselves.”
- “America’s Shopping Malls Are Dying A Slow, Ugly Death”
- “The Death Of Shopping Malls?”
Pencils down. Let’s see how you did.
- May 24, 2020, Business Insider — Unless you’ve been social distancing under a rock for the past few months, this headline seems scarily plausible, unfortunately.
- Nov. 22, 2019, The Washington Post — This one was written in the good old days (late last year) before most of us had ever thought about a “coronavirus.” At the time, we were probably debating whether to take advantage of “Black Friday” (The salvation of brick-and-mortar retail!) or “Cyber Monday” (Another nail in the coffin of retail centers — especially if you order your hammer and nails from Amazon!)
- Jan. 31, 2014, Business Insider, again — Like a cadaver dog, BI has been on the scent of this story for quite a while.
- March 23, 2009, CBS News — In the dark days of the Great Recession, many people’s answer to this headline’s question would likely have been “yes.”
Obviously, we’ve been waving goodbye to the local mall for quite a while. But while it has appeared to be happening in slow motion, the decline is very real: In the twenty-teens, more than 12,000 physical retail stores were shuttered. It’s gotten to the point where abandoned malls have become almost as big of a cliché in popular entertainment as the haunted house.
Think of the creepy shopping mall in “Gone Girl” (images here, courtesy of, yep, Business Insider, where they know how to clamp their teeth onto a good story). Or the one in “Dawn of the Dead.” (OK, that was from 1979, but it goes to show what you can learn from zombie movies.) Eventually, it got to the point where someone was inspired to write this headline: “Let’s Keep Abandoned Malls Around for Their Literary Merit.”
All that is tongue firmly in cheek, obviously. The sobering truth is that the mall has been in trouble for decades. The real costs, particularly in 2020, have been terrible in terms of lost jobs and missing tax revenue for many local communities. And, not to sound like just another headline writer, but this latest crisis, courtesy of a virus and compounded by e-commerce, really does feel like a potential death blow to many malls.
But it’s worth noting that a few decades ago (and here comes the “throwback” for your Thursday), many of these same malls were blamed for another serious national trauma: the decline of downtown retail and the hollowing out of the American central business district (known as “CBD” to urban planners and not to be confused with THC’s boring cousin).
I grew up a short drive from an increasingly decrepit and uninviting downtown. Our family would rarely venture there and only to pay a quick visit to a couple of mom-and-pop retailers that somehow had hung on since their long-ago glory days. Another short drive in the opposite direction took us to a massive outdoor mall that housed many retailers that had left the local CBD at first chance in the ’60s and ’70s. And, unlike in the CBD, where you’d hurry back to your parents’ car that you hoped still had tires, the mall was a place where you’d park in a crowded lot and then linger with family or friends, sometimes for hours.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here is how Richard Florida, renowned urban studies theorist and possessor of a really cool surname, described it: “It’s amazing really how fast the shift from downtown shopping districts to suburban malls happened. Though people had been moving out to the suburbs since the 1950s and earlier, high-end shopping was something that required a trip back into the city until the early 1970s. … Then, as abruptly as if someone had pulled a switch, shoppers were driving out to … where the malls were, and the downtown stores were all being shuttered.”
Florida made his observation in 2012, in a piece about how many urban centers at the time were actually staging a very successful comeback and regaining some of the ground they had lost to suburban shopping centers. Downtowns were repurposing themselves as beehives of 21st century white-collar commerce and becoming attractive again to retailers and restaurants, at least the ones that could afford the rising rents that downtown property owners now demanded.
Now here is where it gets really interesting. (Well, to me.) Simultaneously with all those RIPs written for the shopping mall, there has also been a lot of chatter this year about how the pandemic is a serious body blow to the CBDs that managed to revitalize themselves in recent decades. “Downtown Is Going Down” was a subhead in this article from about a month ago, written by some economists who should know what they’re talking about.
So, there you have it: a double whammy of doom and gloom! Malls and CBDs are both imperiled! In fact, here’s a headline that manages to combine both forms of retail dystopia: “Mall Kills Main Street, Recession Kills Mall.” (The writer couldn’t resist attempting a hat trick, adding, “Yet, in this downturn, that [trend] doesn’t necessarily mean recovery for Main Street, even though the mall was the supposed slayer of downtown shopping districts.”) That was written 11 years ago, once again proving that this death vigil has been going on for a very long time. We’ve just been running from hospice room to hospice room and back again, fretting over which venerable institution might pass first.
I wish I could tell you how this all turns out. But, really, one advantage to writing this “throwback” blog it is that I only have to look in one direction: backwards. And, like those other headline writers, I simply react to current trends as they happen.
But I think you and I both sense that the retail world will indeed look very different in five or 10 years. There will be fewer malls and the ones that survive will be niched and possibly anchor-less. Downtowns aren’t going anywhere but they might be rezoned to be a little less dense while many of us continue to telecommute. E-commerce will play an even bigger role in our increasingly omni-channeled world. And, like most consumers, we will be perfectly happy to have versions of all of these scenarios at our disposal when we want them, even if this future wouldn’t be recognizable to the first generations of mall shoppers.
By the way, the first mall in the United States is generally considered to be Lakewood Center, which opened near Los Angeles in the early 1950s. Lakewood Center underwent many renovations and other changes over the decades, including being enclosed, which is kind of a rite of passage for middle-aged malls. But it’s still there, closed to foot traffic at the moment but serving its retail and restaurant customers with curbside service.