When you live in a single area long enough, you notice changes in the environment and one significant one in my area is the shifting of retail centers. When we moved here in 1989, it was the era of the large indoor shopping mall. The Randall Park mall nearby was, when it opened in 1976, the largest in the country, and its opening was graced by the presence of many celebrities. We used to go there regularly and the holiday season would see it packed with attractions for children like little trains.
But barely two decades later, it had fallen out of favor as a go-to shopping venue. Smaller stores started steadily closing, the anchor stores also left, and in 2009 the mall was finally closed, leaving a large empty ghost building that was vandalized. Two days ago, wrecking crews arrived to finally tear down what had become a large abandoned white structure centered in a vast and empty parking lot.
The nationwide decline of the large indoor mall is a well-documented phenomenon though, as Kevin Drum points out, people in the retail industry cannot seem to quite agree on why this is happening. Is it that they ceased to be family-friendly and instead became hangouts for teenagers? Or that their architecture was not attractive to a new aesthetic sense? Or an increasing perception among some that enclosed malls represented artificial consumerism?
But outdoor malls are themselves subject to the fickleness of customers. When we moved here, there were a couple of large ones that we used to frequent. They have mostly closed, with just a few storefronts remaining open. Stores moved to newer retail strips that were built fairly close by. But then they too closed and the stores moved again. And then those closed and the stores moved again. All this within the relatively short time frame of 25 years. Putting up good buildings that cease to be used in a decade seems incredibly wasteful to me.
All of these abandoned outdoor malls are fairly close to each other and close to the currently popular newly constructed ones so convenient access cannot be the issue. Why do they move? Maybe there are underlying factors involving property taxes and rents that drive the shift. But I suspect that customer choices must play a role too and here I am at a loss to understand the reasons because I am not someone who goes browsing or window-shopping and thus do not understand the relative appeal of different retail environments for shoppers. My goal with shopping is to do it in the shortest possible time, which means I shop only when I absolutely have to and when I know exactly what I want. Then I pick the store that has it, buy it, and go home.
As I drive past these abandoned open malls that dot the landscape, they exude an air of melancholy even though many of them consist of attractive buildings that are just a decade or so in age. They remind me of ghost towns which the occupants have suddenly abandoned due to some calamity, with vacant buildings and large parking lots bereft of cars, and in some cases with weeds taking over. These malls are almost like giant organisms, shedding their skins as they move to new locations, symbolic of the wasteful disposable culture that we live in.
Is this a peculiarly American phenomenon? Do other countries also experience this rapid shift in the popularity of shopping venues? I am curious to hear from readers in the US and around the world as to whether my sense of this phenomenon is purely local or more general.