Whoever said money can’t buy happiness simply didn’t know where to go shopping. —Bo Derek
I’m old enough to remember having to go downtown to shop. Back then, all the stores were downtown. They were open from 10:00 AM until 5:00 PM except on Thursdays, when they stayed open late, until 7:00 PM. At least, that’s how it was in the small Kansas and Oklahoma towns we called home. Back then, if both your parents worked, your shopping choices were either Thursday night or Saturday, neither of which was an especially pleasant experience. Just having to be downtown at night could be harrowing.
I remember the first large indoor mall I visited: Woodland Hills Mall, Tulsa. At the time, its location seemed rather far out, well removed not only from downtown but most of Tulsa’s suburbs. There was nothing around but fields and pasture. Shopping there was a surreal experience and we wondered why in the world anyone would want to drive all the way out there. If you were to visit that location now, however, not only is the area heavily populated, it’s had to go through three or four efforts at revitalization to avoid becoming run down.
Recently, someone gave Kat’s dad, aka “Grandpa Bob,” a real treasure: a 1969 Rand-McNally Atlas. Looking at the map for Indianapolis back then, I-465 was only completed on the west side and the primary destination was Lafayette Square Mall. Drive along North Lafayette now and there are times the mall looks completely abandoned and even the few stores that do remain are small, discount-driven stores with goods of highly questionable origin and quality.
Our shopping habits are changing again, and as they do we’re slowly but surely killing off what has become a bastion of American retail and excess: the shopping mall. Already, there’s an entire website dedicated to tracking mall closures. Now, Green Street Advisors, a real estate research firm, is saying that department stores need to close hundreds of locations if they are to have any hope of returning to profitability. In short, there are too many malls with too many department stores and it’s bringing the entire retail sector down.
The plight of department stores isn’t new and has been fairly well documented. Just last week Sears announced it would be closing 78 more stores (mostly KMart stores) this year. Macy’s warned last September that it would close 40 stores this year. We’ve seen this coming for a few years and that has, if anything, accelerated the rate of change in our shopping habits. We’re buying more online and from discounters now than we ever have.
Yet, more closures are needed if these once ubiquitous department stores are to stay in business. Green Street’s report suggests Sears close nearly half its existing locations. JCPenney needs to close approximately 320 stores, while Nordstrom probably needs to shutter 30 locations, and Macy’s needs to ax another 70 on top of the previously announced 40. All this is necessary if the store brands are to remain profitable.
Store brands are likely to take heed to this advice. They’re watching what’s happening to similar retailers in the UK and it’s not a pretty sight. UK retailer BHS went into administration yesterday, a prelude to possible bankruptcy as did menswear giant Austin Reed. And the once popular mall stalwart Aeropostale was delisted from the New York Stock Exchange on Friday after its stock price has failed to break the $1 mark since last September.
All this spells death for traditional suburban malls who depend on large department stores as their anchors. Malls have seen anchors cut the amount of floor space in some locations and even abandon leases in some others. When that happens, shopping at those malls screeches to a sharp stop. Smaller inner-mall stores, which rely on traffic driven by the anchors, quickly fold and leave. The next thing mall management knows, their vacancy rate exceeds 40% and once that happens the end days are near.
Let’s face it, though: no one really likes shopping at the mall anymore. This isn’t the 80s. We would much rather shop discounters such as TJ Maxx or Marshalls and when we do shop a major department store we’re more likely to go in, find what we need, and leave. We don’t have enough expendable income to waste time just wandering around and exploring the mall.
No one has said yet whether they’ll follow Green Street’s advice. If they do, though, you can most likely kiss your mall shopping habit goodbye. With store closures in the numbers that the report recommends, only a fraction of mostly newer malls would be able to survive. Within two years, the entire retail landscape could change dramatically.
I find it a bit ironic that suburban shopping centers and malls were responsible for killing many downtown shopping districts and now those malls are finding out what it’s likely to become obsolete themselves. Few downtowns ever recovered. Mall deaths may be even more permanent.
So, get your food court fix now and maybe make an extra trip to Spencer’s Gifts for those naughty little things. The mall is one shopping experience whose future is not pretty.