The Fall of Our Malls

The Fall of Our Malls

By Ryan Ricks

When I was a kid, I always looked forward to my family’s semi-regular trips to the mall. We’d go maybe once a month, but having a couple of malls around, with all their nifty and versatile little stores, ensured that I would never grow bored with what they had to offer. Of course, the malls of my childhood pale in comparison to the hubs they were in times before. And now, in this age of online shopping, brick-and-mortar stores are dying out, including malls. 

Malls weren’t always this way. There was a time where they were on the rise, where there was a market for them. In the United States, this market came from a growing number of suburbs. Suburbs, far from urban conveniences, demanded a place where they could be a community, and so, little shops turned into regional shopping centers. These shopping centers started turning into the malls that we are familiar with today, though they did have some differences. For example, fully-enclosed shopping malls did not appear until the mid-1950s, and many malls were covered in carpet until developers in the 1980s concluded that the friction from them was slowing down customers. 

Although these suburban shopping centers were expanded upon after World War II, it wasn’t until 1957, with the opening of the Bergen Mall in Paramus, New Jersey, that the centers were promoted as “malls.” Shopping malls continued to grow in popularity, captivating not only the suburbanites they were made for but also those in the urban crowd. 

By the end of the 20th century, shopping malls continued to increase in size and amount of visitors. Some have grown to be so popular and influential that they are tourist destinations in and of themselves. Probably the prominent of these examples is the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. This mall, the second-largest in the United States, has 4,870,000 square feet of space. Additionally, the shopping mall giant has the most visitors in the world, with around 40 million people visiting annually, twice the amount of people who visit the Magic Kingdom in Disney World.  

However, the Mall of America is just one of the few exceptions of malls that have managed to get more popular over time. Any shopping center unfortunate enough to not be considered a megamall is no longer seeing the unprecedented growth they used to. According to the BBC, in the 1990s, 140 US malls were being built a year; in 2007, no new malls were built in the US for the first time in fifty years. 

The future isn’t looking much better. By 2022, it’s predicted that 25% of malls will close, according to Time. According to Coresight Research, in 2018, US retailers announced 5,437 store closures. In 2019, that number has already almost doubled, with US retailers announcing 10,619 stores closing so far as of November 22nd. The number of stores opening has also increased this year, with Coresight Research reporting that 2,963 were announced to have opened in 2018, and 3,956 opening so far in 2019. However, while the amount of stores opening has increased, these numbers are nothing compared to the sheer volume of stores that are shutting their doors for good. 

Previous pillars of shopping malls are closing in increasing numbers as well. Sears, Payless ShoeSource, Forever 21—each of these iconic stores has filed for bankruptcy and has closed or has started to close hundreds of locations across the country and the world. 

Shopping malls used to be the encapsulation of consumer society. They were the golden ideal. Clearly, that’s changed now. Malls are falling out of fashion, becoming increasingly abandoned. Why is this? If shopping malls were so popular, what could possibly be killing them off? 

The answer? What you’re using to read this article right now. 

The Internet, with its accessibility, has started to put an end to the physical shopping experience. Online shopping is quick and efficient, not hampered by the same time constraints as traveling to and walking around a mall. When we shop online, we can browse hundreds of different stores with just a click, spending less time and less money compared to driving from store to store, when we’d have to sit in traffic and fill up our cars with gas. People have taken notice of this convenient way to shop, shown by the increasing share of the market online shopping holds, rising from below 5% in the late 1990s to around 12% in 2019, according to CNBC. 

Although online shopping is a key player in the fall of shopping centers, it isn’t the only culprit, and in fact, the decline of malls started before sites like Amazon became so popular. The Great Recession did its fair share of tearing down the pedestal on which our once-great malls stood. Soon after the number of malls in America surpassed 1000, the Great Recession stopped any and all progress on the malls, many of which were already starting to lose important vendors and to fall into disrepair. As millions lost jobs, consumers spent less. And when consumers did spend, they turned towards the burgeoning online platform. 

The malls were stuck in a hard place, and many of them were abandoned. Many more, however, have become “Zombie Malls,” malls that are far more dead than alive. These hollow shells of their former selves contain only a dwindling fraction of the stores they used to have. 

Unless they manage to turn current trends around, “Zombie Malls” will soon become abandoned like their counterparts, and so now the question becomes one of what to do with them. Many of the closed malls are huge, with so many square miles of space it would be offensive not to use it. 

Some of these properties have been put to good use. In Austin, Texas, a mall was turned into a community college. In 2013, the Lexington Mall in Lexington, Kentucky, was turned into an additional campus for a megachurch, complete with an auditorium and space for a nursery, school, and worship center. In Jackson, Mississippi, an abandoned mall was turned into a medical complex that serves low-income residents. These creative uses for the abandoned properties provide some hope that suburban America won’t be completely dotted with space-wasting eyesores, though many of these creations had to do with the fact that they were abandoned at the right time in the right place, with the right prospective companies looking at the properties. 

Certainly, there are exceptions to the trend of decline and abandonment. Some malls have managed to stay afloat, either through sheer luck or by providing the visitor with something different, like how the Mall of America contains an amusement park, for example. 

However, not all shopping malls have the funds to renew themselves for a different consumer base. Each day, these centers look increasingly dated, covered in their 70s and 80s decor. They’re reminiscent of a time capsule in this way, capturing a moment of old Americana that some might consider missing in today’s world.

The decline of shopping malls is almost a sad thing to watch, just because even in their falling, they are still an iconic part of American life. But, this is how innovation works. There will always be something new to replace the old, and there will always be something made to fill a supposed hole in our lives. The shopping mall brought convenience and efficiency to the suburbs, and the Internet is expanding upon the concept. Simply put, we are beginning to prefer the virtual to the physical, and our malls are feeling the repercussions of that. 

Image courtesy of Nonprofit Quarterly 

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