The fickle world of retail malls

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.


  1. Katydid says

    I grew up a military brat, and my parents returned to the United States in the 1980s, when I was a teenager. I was used to the (much-smaller) military shopping centers on the bases, or else (in whatever country we found ourselves) the town center with its market day or the high streets that were rare visits. Stepping into a mall in the USA was for me like Dorothy stepping into the Emerald City–a glittering, shiny wonder, and it was astounding to me that malls were open every day, for many hours.

    Back then it seemed that malls had endless variety. My closest mall had *three* bookstores (two now-bankrupt chains, one independent), several stores selling different types of home decor, the anchor department stores, and lots of little random stores selling a wide variety of goods. You could spend an entire day at the mall–meet your friends, go to a movie, get your hair cut, buy clothes and shoes, get a poster framed, buy a toy, eat lunch at any one of a couple of dozen fast food places, buy housewares or furniture, and finally, stop to check out the new records/tapes (it was the 1980s…). You could even get your eyes checked or see the dentist, all under one roof! How exotic and fun it seemed.

    By the early 2000s, however, the diverse little stores were all gone, the bookstores and toystores were all bought up or bankrupt (thanks, Romney!), and the remaining stores all seemed to cater to nothing but the Millenials (who were at the time teenagers). As a young parent, I had no reason to go to the mall because almost nothing there was meant for me. At the same time, the storeowners at the mall were complaining about ridiculously hiked rent. The glittering malls from the 1980s were falling vacant. (Now they’re being demolished.)

    I think the new stripmalls are a last-ditch effort to bring excitement back to shopping. However, the combination of the recession, super-retailers (e.g. Walmart), and pushback against sprawl is (IMO) is keeping people away from endless shopping.

    I’d be really interested in reading other people’s experiences.

  2. Michael Duchek says

    You may have answered your own question. The new malls replace the old malls. I used to live across from Fiesta Mall in Arizona (where Bill & Teds excellent adventure was filmed). It was the “in place”, right up until new mall was built some miles away. It was the “in place” until a new mall was built, etc, etc.

    Since the area had zero industry other than building shopping malls and houses, the market collapse hit it very hard.

  3. DonDueed says killed the malls. Online shopping has been growing steadily and hit a new high in this season’s holiday sales.

  4. Ed says

    What made a mall a mall was the specialty shops and the old school department stores. Today, there is a big decline in anything that would be in a non-big-box retail environment besides supermarkets, pharmacies, restaurants and bars. These can be fit easily into small, local shopping areas (say, between two residential developments). Occasionally a surviving specialty shop or professional office like a dentist is tacked on, too.

    Most remaining bookstores are Barnes & Noble or similar large shops with cafes and music and movie sections. People like me who still like real books and physical media will go to them wherever they are from the middle of nowhere to between a Wal-Mart and some other hideous monstrosity.

    There’s usually only one serving a huge section of a metropolitan area, so it’s not like the clientele can easily go elsewhere if we don’t like the location. No need to rent expensive space in a mega-complex with marble walkways and with indoor gardens.

    As for cinemas, most of the current ones are too big for malls. Fewer people go out to the movies than in the 80s and 90s, so cinema owners build vast multiplexes with stadium seating to attract customers.

    The big-box places sell much of what people use and have also replaced malls for the appeal of a large indoor space to hang out or walk around in (or so I’m told–I get what I need and get the hell out of the horrible things!). This has gotten me nostalgic for my youth living right on the border of a large city with the sophisticated allure of trendy urban areas on one side and the glamor of giant malls on the other. They were also a good escape from nasty weather of any kind.

  5. Pen says

    A lot of Europe is dominated by the pedestrianised city centre where all the old, attractive buildings are. They don’t die or move but there are shifts in the kinds of shops and social spaces you find there. Lots of cafes, bars and restaurants and boutiquey stores where people like to browse for a book, an item of clothing or a gift. Major grocery shopping and large goods stores moved out of town, to where people could get cars to them. But now, online shopping + delivery is on the rise.

  6. says

    One of the greatest failures of malls is the exorbitant rents charged. Much like newspapers and their ad space, the owners didn’t accept changing realities of the market and refused to lower their prices. The result was, they were abandoned and the malls closed, no one’s fault but their own.

    In the northern parts of Canada, winters down to -40C, deep snow and ice make walking anywhere from difficult to hazardous to impossible. Shopping malls are seen by many as a social place, a large and warm indoor area where you can walk around (for free) without a coat, without fear of slipping and falling. In some communities, malls, supermarkets, libraries and sports arenas are packed during the coldest months because they’re about the only places a person can go and walk to avoid cabin fever.

  7. Erik Jensen says

    I used to work as a landscaper at a mall and they had a policy against any groups of people congregating. They never enforced this against anybody over 20 or under 13. And of course there were no political demonstrations, bars, homeless people, or musicians (except maybe a Billy Joel wanna-be). This is why I hate the mall. It is a sanitized version of the public square.

    If you don’t want to leave your home, then you can shop online. If you don’t care about aesthetics and want to save money, then you can shop at a big box. If you want an interesting experience which might include shopping, then head downtown or to a gritty, artsy district. The mall seems to be narrowly tailored to making money from fashion-conscious women and teenagers.

  8. says

    I am the 4th generation to grow up in my town, so not only did I see the invasion and defeat of the indoor and outdoor malls, I know much of the retail history of the town. My distant cousin is one of the more resilient of the store fronts, selling shoes, and there are husks of buildings marking my family’s history with trying (and sadly failing) to keep up with the retail times.

    I think the fall of the mall is two-fold. One, as has been mentioned, is online shopping. There are better deals on a wider range of more accessible items. Two, I think, is the emergence of the “buy local” movement that seems to be driving downtown reinvigoration both in my town and in many others I’ve lived in and visited. In fact, a cooking store in my town left our indoor mall for a downtown spot because he said the rent was cheaper and, more importantly, his local business branding worked better.

  9. A. Noyd says

    Ed (#4)

    As for cinemas, most of the current ones are too big for malls. Fewer people go out to the movies than in the 80s and 90s, so cinema owners build vast multiplexes with stadium seating to attract customers.

    There’s a multiplex in a mall in downtown Seattle. I swear it defies the laws of physics because it seems much bigger on the inside than on the outside.

  10. says

    IMHO ONE of the causes of the demise of big malls, is that downtown spaces are being revitalized and the downtown/high-street shopping atmosphere is now more “chic” and/or “authentic” than the old enclosed and more “artificial” mall, which seemed a less accessible place isolated by the huge parking structures that surround it. People who live in cities pay top dollar to do so, and part of that experience is the ability to live in the middle of all the activity and be just paces away from whatever shopping, dining or entertainment you had a mind for on a given day. So all those people, at least, stop driving to malls with their considerable disposable income.

    There’s also the recent recessions, first of 2000 and then of 2008. And online shopping.

    I think also that retailers are squeezed between the expense of locating in a good spot, and the constant need to sell whatever they have as cheaply as possible, because as we all know (because the ads tell us so), paying the lowest possible prices for everything is a God-given right and a necessity.

  11. says

    There’s a multiplex in a mall in downtown Seattle. I swear it defies the laws of physics because it seems much bigger on the inside than on the outside.

    Yeah, malls that can’t afford the space-bending technology generally don’t last long.

  12. anat says

    Northgate Mall in Seattle is going strong, had outdoor areas added to it in 2006. Some stores left, but others came instead.

  13. says

    Tysons I in McLean, VA, is doing pretty well (Tysons II still looks as posh as ever, but it’s nowhere near as active). Landmark Mall near Alexandria, OTOH, looked two-thirds-dead last I checked. Some of the newer malls seem to be designed to imitate a downtown high-street, and downtown-high-street-esque shopping and dining areas have tended to grow around new multiplex theatres. Among the most popular shopping areas in my area are Gallery Place/Verizon Center in the middle of DC; Tysons I and the growth around it (including a new tube line serving the area); National Harbor near I-495/I-95/I-295; the shops around the newly-pedestrianized streets of Silver Spring, MD; and Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and Fells Point, both of which are well inside the (few remaining) nice parts of that city and easily connected to surrounding neighborhoods.

    If you’ve ever been to Paris, you’ll see the look and feel today’s shopping-mall developments are trying to replicate.

  14. Mano Singham says

    Raging Bee,

    Your experience corresponds to what I see in the Cleveland area too. Some of the popular open-air malls like Legacy Village try to look like little European cities, with narrow streets, street lamps, and the like. These are also all very upscale. The open-air malls in the poorer neighborhoods are still the old strip-mall type.

  15. AMM says

    I’ve watched several generations of malls rise and fall in my area.

    I think it’s that the appeal of malls is tied to their newness. The USA, in particular, is enchanted with whatever is new, regardless of whether it makes things better), and disparages whatever has been around for a while. When a new mall is built, a whole bunch of people will go there and spend money simply because it’s new and different and therefore exciting. After it’s been around for a while, the excitement wears off and you no longer go there just to see it, you only go because there’s something you need there. So the developers build a new one, and the folks who flocked to the old one when it was new will now flock to the new one and ignore the old one.

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