Do you go to the mall? I used to, quite a bit actually. In the 70s, 80s, 90s, even the 00s – the mall was the place to buy stuff, and I liked stuff as much as any child and young woman in North America. Now, you can buy stuff in lots of other places – like big box stores, or on the internet – so the mall is less of a destination for me, and for many other shoppers too. That raises some big questions, for mall operators and retailers obviously, but for communities as well.
This piece from The Smithsonian summarizes the history of malls nicely. I had not realized that in their early days, U.S. malls were built as much because they offered tax advantages to developers as anything else. Having said that, they were pretty dazzling to many suburban shoppers. Everything, all in one place, with a food court to nourish you when you needed a break. Heaven.
Then again, that was when the world was defined by the retailers you could visit. If you needed a prom dress, you checked out the twenty or however many stores you had at the mall, and made your choice. Now, not only can you buy from the site of every online retailer, whether or not they set up shop near you, you have other options as well. Ebay brings the world to your door, and Craigslist and Kijji make the secondary market easily accessible as well. The mall is not the only game in town.
Of course, the explosion of choice is not the only factor that is hurting malls. An aging population (which is who we are in North America) needs less of the stuff I used to like, so mall trips suffer accordingly. And even the young are being more parsimonious these days when it comes to typical mall merchandise. Yes, the Apple store cannot keep the latest iPhone in stock, but that appetite for electronics has been to the detriment of typical mall clothing purveyors like Abercrombie and American Eagle Outfitters. In many communities, developers have been slow to upgrade older malls too, which makes them even less enticing.
According to the Smithsonian article, there is speculation that half of the malls in the U.S. could close over the next 15 to 20 years, and it seems reasonable to assume that Canada could see a similar decline as well. Although the fall of the mall is not likely to strike the same heartstrings that go along with hollowed out small town downtowns, it is worth a thought as to what goes along with a mall closing.
At their best, malls can be destinations, gathering places, homes away from home (much as many people think of their local Starbucks). That might mean reinvesting in them and changing the mix of stores, or it might mean using them for more than retail. As the Smithsonian piece says, some mall success stories center around using space for libraries or offices or skating rinks. Given the demographics, I would suggest adding ‘Seniors Centres’ to the list, and then exploring the possibilities.