America’s Empty Shopping Malls

Over the holiday (read: gift-buying) season, some of us were very confident in what each of our recipients wanted and just bought everything online with a couple of clicks. No stress, no hassle. The rest of us normal people likely found ourselves in our local shopping mall at some point. Did you notice anything odd about the mall you went to? A disorganized department store, disheveled displays, a food court restaurant or two shut down? In my case, the entire movie theater attached to the mall boarded up?

Sure, shopping malls have their advantages: you get a variety of products in one location (though compared to the vast online market, it’s a fraction), and you get to look and touch and test out the products you’re buying. Yes, you have to drive there, but there’s no shipping cost and no wait that comes with online shopping. And what beats the smell of Auntie Anne’s pretzels wafting from around every corner? (Yes, I have three separate Auntie Anne’s stores at my local mall and I love it.) Although I never really did this with my friends, malls are also a place to congregate, socialize, and spend time lounging around. But with changing consumer habits, malls are becoming obsolete to our way of life. Shopping malls can’t hold a candle to the ease and convenience of shopping online. As more consumers move their shopping online, this will only become more true, because companies have to adapt and focus their efforts on making the online experience as enjoyable as possible, thereby ignoring the quality of their physical stores.

Malls are struggling, something we’ve probably been vaguely cognizant of for a while. Estimates are that a quarter of malls right now are at “high risk of losing one of their anchor stores (think Macy’s, Nordstrom, Sears, etc.). This is basically a death sentence for a mall. Accordingly, analysts also predict that one in four malls will be shut down in the next four years. This flailing is likely caused by several different factors–the success of online stores, changing consumer tastes, and market correction are a few big reasons. Whatever the causes are, one wonders what happens with a big empty space like that once everyone has packed up and left. As the bigger department stores leave and focus their efforts on their online stores, smaller shops in the mall lose the foot traffic that keep them afloat, meaning a mall that’s partly empty is naturally soon going to be totally empty. With both producers and consumers moving towards the world of online shopping, these vast spaces that used to be a beacon of life and activity in a community are now these vast, hollow monoliths.

So what do we do to give shopping malls a “second life”? Million-dollar projects have been initiated in various places around the country. Some empty malls are bought up and used as office space, such as one mall in California bought by HP and later Google. Other, more creative ideas are put to life with these buildings. One mall in Rhode Island, shut down in 2008, was converted into a micro-apartment complex in 2013. Although it isn’t a mall, a Wisconsin Kmart store has been converted into a haunted house attraction. Even in malls that still house regular brick-and-mortar retail stores, increasing amounts of the mall space are being used for establishments besides retail, such as medical centers and bowling alleys.

All this is to say that the utility of physical shopping spaces is changing as consumers buy more products online. As stores struggle and close their doors, malls and shopping centers have to reevaluate what kinds of establishments are most useful to the community. This means that what malls look like and offer are changing in a big way. Only time will tell if the shift is a successful one.

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