The American mall. At one point, these places were a major hub of society. They were more than somewhere to just shop or grab a bite at the food court. They were places to socialize, to create memories with your family and friends. People could spend hours getting lost in the corridors of a mall. Stores, restaurants, even movie theaters and arcades. Malls have something for everyone and everything, for consumer and social needs.
By this point, you have probably noticed the past tense used to describe them. That is because malls in America have started to become a dying breed. Not completely dead, but perhaps one could say they are on life support. Malls in America have slowly been emptied of their stores, and in many cases left to rot, abandoned. So, what happened? How could an institution that at one point accounted for 33% of retail in the entire country fall so low?
This article exists to outline the history of the American mall. Their purpose and place in the culture, and why they are shutting down in so many areas of the country. Not only that, but to try and explain why it is that they have become less and less popular. First, however, it is good to explain the history of shopping in America, to be able to account for the rise of the indoor shopping mall.
America Before the Mall
For the longest time, Americans did all of their shopping through “mom and pop” style stores. In the days when agriculture was the main source of income, small, local stores were the way to go. Every town had its own drug or general store. (Meyer, 2022) These shops were very much individualized, catering to their specific towns.With the rise of industrialization, things were beginning to change. People were migrating into urban areas, factories were making and selling the things people usually made themselves. These changes started to foster a growing affluent consumer base. So, stores served these shoppers by creating huge department stores within the booming cities of the time.
These stores would sell anything to people. Their furniture, their food, their clothes, anything could be bought here. These were more than just stores, however. While these places gave shoppers the items they needed, they also gave them the experiences they never knew they wanted. These department stores would hold events in order to drive people to come in. Many shoppers had new, disposable income that they needed something to spend on. Department stores, through their events and popular items, filled this void. (Meyer, 2022)
It was not until the early 1920s, however, when the idea of a shopping mall first came to the United States. However, it was very different than the indoor shopping malls people think of nowadays. This first mall was opened in 1922 in Kansas City. (Sunset Plaza) The Country Club Plaza, as it was called, was an outdoor shopping experience. Think of something like the modern, outdoor shopping plazas that exist nowadays.
A different innovation came in the 1930s. In 1931, the Highland Shopping Village in Texas was created. This was another outdoor storefront, but it had one major difference to the Country Club Plaza and others like it. This was a shopping outlet that had all of the stores facing inwards, rather than out. This is what would, in a couple of decades, be the standard of the indoor shopping mall. (Sunset Plaza)
By the time the 1940s rolled around, these shopping centers were now starting to be in suburban areas. This was due to the recent creation of suburbs, not to mention the huge droves of people moving into them. However, the greatest changes to American shopping were still yet to come.
The Advent of the Indoor American Mall
Victor Gruen, a famous European architect, began making his mark on the American mall industry in 1954. He was the major influence on the design of American malls, and this is when he got his start. In particular, he was the one who brought ac/heating and parking to malls. (Sunset Plaza)
His biggest influence, however? It was the creation of the modern-day enclosed mall we all know and love.
In 1956, he created the first ever enclosed mall. This was the Southdale Center in Endina, Minnesota, and it was unlike anything else that came before it. The mall was filled not just with stores but with a bird sanctuary, fountains, and more. He had the idea of making a sort of indoor downtown with this first ever enclosed mall. (Harmon and Zim, 2021)
This mall was hugely popular, being compared to a theme park with the number of attractions and thrills it had. In no time at all, many more malls began to pop up all over the country. By the year 1960, there were already more than 4,500 malls in the United States. In 1973, California invented the mini-mall, and years later became the mini-mall capital of the world. (Sunset Plaza)
Clearly, malls were popular. In just a short amount of time, people found themselves drawn to these places. The convenience of having vastly different stores all in one area, and the fun attractions they could have, were game-changing. It was not just the stores and attractions that drew people in, however. There were other, much less obvious factors at play here.
American Mall: Building a Community
While Victor Gruen wanted the mall to be like a town, that idea did not really pan out. That does not mean that people did not seek out companionship or a social life in these places though.
With the advent of suburbia in the 1950s, people were lacking in what sociologists would call a “third place”. Essentially, somewhere other than work that would allow for socialization and interactions with others. This is something that the mall could provide. This makes sense, too. As early as the 1920s, stores were providing people with exciting experiences away from the home and work. This is something that has persisted throughout time. Think of every 80s movie where people are shown hanging out at the mall. Even looking at culture in the 21st century, the mall is still a popular place to meet up. Clearly, there is something about malls that is able to bring people together. (Harmon and Zim, 2021)
And, to make it even easier for the modern 1950s shopper, malls were often placed near highways. This was where Americans would drive to and from other places, so the malls were strategically placed here to drive shoppers to them naturally.
Malls do a great job at providing shopping, food, and entertainment, as well as a sense of community. Which makes it all the more surprising that their numbers have started to decline.
E-commerce and its Effects on the American Mall
So, what has caused the decline? Well, the main reason that everyone loves to point to is the growing industry of e-commerce. The main reason being that, if you can just buy everything you want online, why bother going to the mall? Ever since it was first introduced to the public, e-commerce has grown exponentially. More than half of Americans use online shopping, and for a wide variety of products. People want to have the convenience that online shopping provides. (Meyer, 2022)
Malls, while having their own uses, ultimately cannot fulfill this due to only being open at certain times, only selling certain products, etc. Malls have always been a way for people to get what they could as quickly and conveniently as possible. In a mall, a person could get as much as they want, from clothes to books to games. Nowadays, people can get all of that with a single click, from anywhere or anytime. There are no restrictions. This is a major factor in why malls are less and less appealing.
It has been proven that companies that do not have a strong online presence are the ones that fail. Many have been too late to get on board, or perhaps they did not do enough to make their website competitive. Either way, they suffered from not doing enough in this sphere. This ultimately affects malls negatively, as many of these failing stores are the ones inside malls. When the stores fail, the malls holding them fail in turn.
Lack of Open Storefronts
Another huge issue is how hard it is to bring back stores in dead malls. Many stores are reluctant to go into dead malls because it may not be financially viable. It leads to the malls slowly dying as stores begin to trickle out, leaving nothing left for shoppers to enjoy. It doesn’t help that many areas usually have more than one mall. They are close enough together that, when one mall dies, people just go to the other one. They don’t find a reason to go to a dying one, to try and save it, because they already have one or two other options close by. In a way, the huge mall boom has led to the demise of many malls in the country. (Harmon and Zim, 2021)
Many of these stores are the large department stores that make up the biggest storefronts of malls, the anchor positions. These are the hardest ones to replace due to their massive size, and yet, because of that factor, they are the most important. When these positions are left unfilled, it becomes harder for a mall to stay afloat financially.
The Mega Mall Concern
Then there is the issue of mega malls. The first one in America, the Mall of America, was opened to the public in 1992. The huge number of stores as well as attractions like an indoor theme park made the mall immensely popular. However, this new style of mall also created some major problems.
One was that people now wanted the mega mall experience, as opposed to just a “normal” mall. It caused smaller malls to suffer in terms of sales. It has been said that people are 50% more likely to go shopping at a mall if it has other attractions. (Harmon and Zim, 2021) So, if a mall couldn’t deliver on this front, people left for something bigger and better. This definitely harkens back to the shopping experience of the 1920s, and the first mall in 1956. In both cases, people were attracted to them because they wanted these unique things to partake in. However, while malls could initially provide this, they started to fail when they kept outdoing themselves. The mega mall and how it destroyed smaller malls points to this.
This also leads into the next problem with mega malls, that they would often “steal” stores from smaller malls. With mega malls being more popular, stores would leave smaller malls, and those malls would be unable to fill them. (Harmon and Zim, 2021) Once stores start leaving, and slots aren’t filled, it is a clear sign a mall is on its way out.
However, even mega malls aren’t safe. The recent American Dream Mall in New Jersey opened in 2019, and it hasn’t been successful. However, one must also consider the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic keeping them from operating as they would have normally. (Harmon and Zim, 2021) Still, it does point to the fact that even larger malls can’t always keep customers coming in. Mega malls also have the downside of having higher costs and, because of that, being harder to sustain. This leads to even mega malls falling into the trope of the “dead mall”.
The Dead Mall
A dead mall is essentially a mall that has very few stores and customers left. You have probably seen at least one dead mall yourself in person. Dead malls have become almost an aesthetic in and of themselves. If nothing else, they have become a genre, their own niche online that has attracted hundreds of thousands of viewers.
You may have seen videos of them while scrolling through YouTube or found pictures on websites like Pinterest. People have created channels dedicated to going through dead malls, documenting them by name and year in which they are visiting. The sad part of many of these videos is that, even during peak hours, the malls are practically empty. It could be on a weekend, bright sunlight shining through, and yet people are nowhere to be seen. It is likely to see most of the storefronts closed, with those left over covered in “Closing Soon!” signs. The malls in these videos might as well be abandoned because of how pitiful many of them look.
Many of these videos often utilize older video clips and photos of the malls as a way to showcase the decline. The contrast between the vivid and lively malls and the dead ones is striking.
Another reason why people become so interested in them is due to an interest in retail in general. Many people watch videos about abandoned buildings and bankrupt companies because they find the rise and fall of companies intriguing. For some people, it may also be nostalgia. A lot of these malls are places people grew up with. So, people look into them to see how they are doing, to reminisce on times when they were still around. Or, just to reminisce about the loss of brick and mortar retail stores in general.
Conclusion: Is There Hope for the American Mall?
One may gather from this that malls are going to go extinct. That e-commerce has destroyed any hopes of malls staying relevant and alive. After all, many stores that are staples of malls, and hard to replace, seem to be dying from the trend.
However, this isn’t exactly the case. It has been proven that companies that have both an online and physical presence tend to do the best amongst all other competitors. (Meyer, 2022)
This isn’t surprising. While people are eager to buy things online for convenience’s sake, there are still some things that people prefer to buy in real life. Not to mention older buyers, who still primarily do their shopping in-store rather than online. You want your store to appeal to younger buyers with the online aspect, but that will only reach part of your base. And reaching only part of your base will make your business suffer as a result.
In general, the statistics don’t support the idea that e-commerce has completely taken over. More than 80% of retail sales worldwide are still from physical locations. (Meyer, 2022)
And, at the end of the day, people want experiences, and they want connections. From what history has shown, people go to malls for more than shopping. They want to hang out with friends, or just enjoy going out somewhere. Online shopping can never replicate that.
So, while there is cause for concern, it seems that malls will likely not completely die out. At least, not any time soon. Of course, mall numbers will continue to decline due to oversaturation. But, as more businesses begin to learn the ropes of online shopping, they will keep strong. And strong stores mean stores that will, hopefully, remain in malls and keep them alive.
Harmon, Josh, and Exa Zim. “The Rise and Fall of the American Mall.” Business Insider, Insider, 13 Apr. 2021, https://www.businessinsider.com/the-rise-and-fall-of-the-american-mall-2020-7.
“The History of Malls in the U.S.” Sunset Plaza, PromotionLA, 14 Sept. 2020, https://sunsetplaza.com/the-history-of-malls-in-the-u-s/.
Meyer, Susan. “The History and Evolution of Retail Stores (from 1700s to 2022).” The BigCommerce Blog, BigCommerce, 15 July 2022, https://www.bigcommerce.com/blog/retail/.