That Icon of American Consumerism

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  1. Avatar greginak says:

    I graduated HS in 1983 so i was in the Mall Era. Also growing up in suburban NJ meant there weren’t many public areas to go to and none of them had book stores, more than two video games or Spencers Gifts. Of course the best pizza places were not in malls nor was White Castle or diners. But we went to the malls a lot. There were three in close driving distance and many more scattered around. The arcade was a powerful draw in those days.

    Malls have there uses in areas with a lot of crappy weather but they do tend to homogenized. They have the best of nothing. I avoid them now but have, usually on vacation, stopped in to get one thing or another with the wife. It did bring up some nostalgia to be wandering around a mall. That is there best use for me now, a little bit of pleasant nostalgia.Report

  2. Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    Todd – Excellent Musical Accompaniment!Report

  3. Avatar NewDealer says:

    I graduated HS in 1998. I remember going to the mall a few times in HS but honestly it was easier for me to get into NYC. NYC was a 35 minute train ride from my town. My house was a ten minute walk from the train station. Getting to the car required my parents to drive me.

    I don’t really remember doing much at the mall in high school. Perhaps looking through the larger music stores for CDs but I always preferred going into the city to hit the indie shops.

    San Francisco has a very nice mall called the Westfield. Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom’s are the attached department stores.Report

    • Avatar dhex says:

      roooooooosevellllllt fiiiiieeeeeeeeeeeld

      i’ve always liked how strong islanders say maaaaaul.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:

        Yup. Been there many times.

        I try to suppress my Long Island accent as much as possible but there are some words where it just comes out unless I am being overly conscious.Report

    • Avatar Michelle says:

      Lots of places have a Westfield Mall. The one with which I’m most familiar is in Skokie.Report

      • Avatar Dave says:

        Old Orchard. I used to know that place well.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:

        Yeah I think they are a chain.

        I’ve never been to Chicago-land (but of course I know Skokie, I feel like is one of the Jewish towns that every Jew knows. I’m surprised about how many West Coast Jews know about my East Coast Jewish suburb-hometown).

        I think Westfield is the kind of mall that will survive. Filled with mid-market and above brands shopping.Report

        • Avatar Dave says:

          Westfield is one of the largest owners of regional malls in the United States along with General Growth Properties, Simon, Macerich and CBL. They have quality malls all over.

          Which hometown? One of the Jewish suburbs out here has one what I think is one of the five best malls in the United States – The Mall at Short Hills.Report

  4. Avatar Zach says:

    There were two prominent malls in my childhood. One – Micmac – was the grander, more upscale of the two, and is still around, and still very busy. The other – Penhorn – went into an irreversible decline after Walmart relocated from it to a box store.

    I miss Penhorn. It was seedy, and the stores were always on the lower end of the economic scale. But I bought pets from the pet store and books from the book store there. I played on the mall’s indoor playground as a kid. I went to the movie theater there for years. It was a major part of my youth, and I was sad when they demolished most of it, even though what they replaced it with is a marked improvement. I think it’s natural to be melancholy about the loss of the great symbols of our youth.Report

    • Avatar North says:

      ZACH! I smell a Nova Scotian! Welcome!
      I was raised just south o’ you in Lunenburg County. I have vaguely fond memories of Park Lane Mall in Halifax back when it was posh. Personally I liked malls, they were not soaked in fog or rain and there were book stores and second cups.

      I’d note also that my new state of residence, Minneapolis, played host to the very first mall. Once taste of the winter winds here and you understand very clearly why. But cold as it gets here Nova Scotian damp North Atlantic winters were worse.Report

      • Avatar Zach says:

        Thank you. I actually live near Spring Garden at the moment, so I normally go to the theater at Park Lane for movies. On the subject of mall renovation – I’m not sure when you were last there, but they ripped out most of the food court and wall fountain and replaced it with a fitness centre.Report

        • Avatar North says:

          Oh when I mean posh I mean the 1980’s posh. As a kid I remember it seeming downright magical. It’s been going downhill ever since.Report

          • Avatar Zach says:

            Park Lane has the added wrinkle in that the mall in its entirety is a condo unit, one which the condo corporation relies upon to pay for its other expenses. The corporation is in a difficult position: it either incurs expenses in an attempt to further repurpose it, or it risks its long-term future. It will be interesting to see what state it will be in 15 years from now.Report

  5. Avatar George Turner says:

    Kentucky is way ahead, converting Lexington Mall into the third campus for Southland Christian Church, featuring a 52,000 square foot auditorium. They hope to hit 10,000 members.

    Lexington Herald Leader article

    Ironically, this is the same city that saw a synagogue on the registry of historic landmarks converted to a pizza parlor. What was the pulpit is now a bar. (Joe B’s)

    I think most American malls could be repurposed as mega churches complete with Jesus riding animatronic dinosaurs down the wide corridors and an escalator to heaven, although in some areas it would make more sense to convert them to monasteries, abbeys, and convents.

    Of course they’ll eventually be abandoned by humans and get taken over by gorillas and orangutans, and Banana Republic and Orange Julius will see their popularity reborn.Report

  6. Avatar LWA says:

    Since the post has nothing with which I can argue, I will gin up an argument of my own.

    Consider this, from the link:

    “These older malls emerged during an artificial boom, argues urban historian Thomas Hanchett in the American Historical Review. Mall construction was stimulated by the accelerated depreciation laws of 1954, Hanchett writes, which incentivized greenfield development on the urban fringe. A second stimulus came from legislation passed in 1960, which allowed investors to band together in REITs (Real Estate Investment Trusts) to avoid corporate income taxes.”

    In other words, shopping malls were not created by the invisible hand of the marketplace, responding efficiently to supply and demand.
    Instead, the marketplace was artificially distorted and warped to produce an end which would not have otherwise happened.
    Maybe it was a good thing, on balance. Maybe not. But either way it demonstrates the often hidden subsidies and market distortions that created wealth for investors, who otherwise would have had a harder time of it.

    So again, they didn’t build that!Report

    • Avatar North says:

      Uh.. dude.. you realize you’re sounding like a libertarian here yes? The mall phenomena was generated by government caused distortions?Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        Yes, and it highlights a curious dynamic. Both liberals and libertarians agree that governmental rules and regulations, create distortions in the market (using distortion non-normatively there, not to imply all distortions are bad), but liberals seem to use this agree upon empirical fact as the basis for pointing out, “there’s no such thing as a free market,” while libertarians seem to use it for pointing out, “seem government screws up markets.”Report

        • Avatar NewDealer says:

          Some distortions are good*, others are not.**

          *Worker protections, anti-discrimination laws, pro-union laws, etc.

          **Subsidies for stadiumsReport

        • Avatar Will Truman says:

          I was going to make a comment along these lines. For LWA and others, it’s ultimately a blank check for endless future intervention. If there is no free market to protect, you might as well just regulate commerce however you see fit. The distortions in favor of the suburbs are not a reason to do away with those distortions, but to apply new distortions to reverse them. Well, “reverse” to start, then “because it’s what we want people to do.”Report

          • Avatar LWA says:

            Well, can anyone even conceive of a non-distorted market?

            What would such a thing look like in a modern industrialized economy?

            As I mentioned in another thread, the self-described libertarians are all in agreement that distortions (like governments, regulations, public infrastructure and the like) are needed; they just quibble about the degree and direction of these distortions.

            So why the constant appeal to a distortionless market?Report

    • Avatar superdestroyer says:

      Mall filled a niche and still continue to fill a need. Remember how many of them benefited from free parking versus paying to park to shop in a downtown department store? They also allowed recreational shopping and all-weather shopping.

      The malls that are going away are the neighborhood malls that do not draw enough traffic. However, manymalls still survive as regional malls that draw customers from a large area. I would say that one thing that has gone away is the idea of the mall rat. No more arcades and since they are regional, longer drives from the neighborhoods.Report

      • Avatar Zach says:

        I think the emphasis should be on ‘niche.’ Online shopping will continue to take its toll on smaller retailers, and the larger surviving chains will tend to favour the big format over being an anchor store for a mall. Target and Walmart would both prefer that almost all purchasing be done in their stores – they have little reason to want to stay in a mall.Report

        • Avatar Will Truman says:

          I think the deleterious effect that Target and Walmart have had on malls is understated in these analyses. I stopped going to the mall when I could do all of my one-stop shopping at hypermarkets.Report

    • Avatar Dave says:

      I work for a company that has a strong business advising clients with respect to dispositions of regional malls so I’ll respond to this.

      “These older malls emerged during an artificial boom, argues urban historian Thomas Hanchett in the American Historical Review. Mall construction was stimulated by the accelerated depreciation laws of 1954, Hanchett writes, which incentivized greenfield development on the urban fringe. A second stimulus came from legislation passed in 1960, which allowed investors to band together in REITs (Real Estate Investment Trusts) to avoid corporate income taxes.”

      I’d like the link so I can understand the context and what he means by “older malls”. Even without it, I’m not sure I completely agree.

      If you’re arguing that both of these together contributed to a regional mall boom, then I’m confused. Accelerated depreciation is a benefit for tax purposes, but if an entity like a REIT is non-taxable (they’re not if they distribute 95% or so of their available cash as a dividend), it won’t apply.

      Even when I address each argument separately, I’m not convinced. Even if accelerated depreciation incentivized greenfield development, that in of itself does not make the development of commercial real estate economically feasible. There isn’t going to be a lot of value to developing real estate if a developer can’t lease it to the point where it is cash flow positive and yielding the appropriate risk-adjusted return. Granted, I don’t have all the details about this on hand, but if I recall, there was a period of time during the 80s when a lot of real estate investment was driven by tax shelters, but that was because losses in real estate could be applied to offset taxes on ordinary income. I believe this was eliminated in the Tax Reform Act of 1986.

      While a handful of REITs own an overwhelming majority of institutional quality regional malls today (i.e. GGP, Simon, Westfield, Macerich and CBL), it wasn’t always like this. Before the REITs became a more favored asset class amongst institutional investors and were able to raise enough capital to get to the sizes they are today (which started in the 1990s), life insurance companies, department store companies and pension funds were the largest owners of malls. REITs had yet to make their impact. I should also mention that life companies and pension funds are non-taxable entities so accelerated depreciation would not be of benefit to them.

      In other words, shopping malls were not created by the invisible hand of the marketplace, responding efficiently to supply and demand. Instead, the marketplace was artificially distorted and warped to produce an end which would not have otherwise happened.

      The development of malls were largely market-driven because the development of malls coincided with large segments of the population moving out of the cities into the suburbs. As some of these suburban population centers grew larger in size, mall developers moved from the more traditional concepts into some of the larger super-regional centers that exist today.

      Was every variable purely market driven? Absolutely not, but there was plenty of demand in place to sustain certain levels of regional mall development no matter what distortions were in place.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        Great comment, Dave. Very insightful.Report

        • Avatar Dave says:

          Thank you.

          I pulled a few comments out of a report we produced for a major sovereign wealth fund that, based partly on our work, invested over $1 billion into one of the mall REITs. I’m not sure if I have the tax law competely right since I didn’t get into the business until 1996, but I do know that tax-driven investing went away after the TRA of 1986. As a sidenote, I think that was one of the causes for the SnL crisis given that they were the ones doing all the lending. Crazy times from what I hear.Report

  7. Avatar greginak says:

    To answer the question you posed i would hope we would have more public spaces in the future. Not just stores, although shopping certainly will be part of any public space, but parks and a wider selection of places then you get in a mall. Hopefully it would a be place where all age groups have a niche to feel at home.Report

    • Avatar superdestroyer says:

      Mixed used areas actually a smaller selection. While walking around Claredon Virginia I realized that virtually all of the businesses are either food, dry cleaners, hair and nail care, and gyms. Purchasing something that actually goes into a shopping bag other than liquor is limited to a single block.Report

  8. Avatar James Hanley says:

    I used to work in a shopping mall in Fort Wayne, IN. Years later I went back and the mall was beyond dying–the life support plug had been pulled and it was breathing its last gasps. While Sears repaired a tire, I walked past strings of empty stores. The mall was around 90% vacant by that point, and the few remaining were scattered far and wide, too far apart to draw clusters of shoppers. It was spooky, like a dystopian movie. The mall is now gone, razed.

    On another note, when Chrysler built its headquarters in the Detroit suburbs in the mud-90s, they weren’t sure the company was going to survive, so they designed it so it could be repurposed as a shopping mall. Now, oddly enough, it looks like the company may outlast the mall concept.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer says:

      When I was college, there were two malls on the same lot. One was a ghost town mall and the other was a typical middle-class mall at the time.

      The ghost town mall was spooky like you described. I think the only really active store was the anime store.Report

  9. Avatar NewDealer says:

    I should add that I still believe in retail shopping, just not necessarily malls. I am more of a new urbanist and city person here. I don’t want to live in Matt Y’s tech utopia where all retail is done on-line.Report

    • Avatar James K says:

      It seems to me that there will be a place for boutique shopping where a personal connection to customers, specialised knowledge of the goods and stocking of obscure products might command enough of a premium to allow it to compete with cheaper online retailers.

      I think it’s the bargain basement, chain retailers that are most at risk. A store that lives by prices will die by them.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:

        Possibly. The Music and Bookstores that are surviving are independents or small-chains that tend to be a brand in and of themselves and/or have specialized knowledge. This can range from small-vinyl only stores or fairly large places like Ameoba Music in the Bay Area (plus an LA outpost).

        I am not sure that most chain-retailers are at risk. JC Penny and Sears and Kohl’s are going down but plenty of mid-market and above chains/department stores are doing fine.

        The big mall in San Francisco is filled with mid-market and above brands like J.Crew, Banana Republic, Lucky Brand, Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, etc. They are jammed packed. A factory outlet type place just opened up in Livermore and is filled with the same kind of mid market and above type of stores. That place is doing very well also.Report

        • Avatar Kim says:

          What is “the big mall” in San Francisco? Is that the multi-level thing near the piers and Embarcadero?Report

          • Avatar NewDealer says:

            The Westfield. It is on Market and 5th.

            The Embarcadero Center is more touristy I think but they have retail there as well and upmarket stuff like Allen Edmonds.Report

            • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

              The Westfield has a first-rate food court as well as an embedded BART station. I’ve used it a few times for lunches for friends who work in scattered places.Report

            • Avatar James Hanley says:

              How the hell can anything at Market and 5th be called Westfield?Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                There’s a scene in one of the books where Dortmunder is selling fake encyclopedias door-to-door in a suburban subdivision when Kelp drives up.

                “What are you doing here? You said you’d be in Oak Park Estates. This is Shady Pine Vistas.”

                Dortmunder looks down the street. Neither an oak nor a pine tree in sight.

                “I must have slipped acros the border.”Report

              • Avatar NewDealer says:

                Think of it as a fanciful nameReport

    • Avatar Michelle says:

      I don’t think malls will die out altogether. I think there will still be enough desire for shopping for tangible items, such as clothing, to keep the best of them in business.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        meh. I forsee the death of malls, as they were originally conceived. Big anchor stores are dying out, man.

        I forsee more tailors, more “group oriented stores” (ala “date stores” like Starbucks or those big box bookstores), more stuff that can’t be outsourced. Oh, and less “indoorsy”.Report

        • Avatar Dave says:

          meh. I forsee the death of malls, as they were originally conceived. Big anchor stores are dying out, man.

          The strongest department stores in well-located regional malls will do very well. Yes, there are certain stores that are in various degrees of trouble. Sears and JC Penney are two examples, but others seem to be doing pretty well. Regional malls have their share of issues.

          Upscale regional malls face competition from outdoor lifestyle centers that allow customers to walk up to a storefront rather than navigate the fun halls of regional mall hell. Rural malls are in real trouble. If it’s not the state of the economy that has hit them hard, it’s the local Wal-Mart down the road. Heaven forbid if the demographic patterns shift and you’re left with an oversupply of mall space. If you’re on the wrong end of that deal, your mall will suffer.

          I remember hearing the doom and gloom stories about traditional retailing when online retailing started to come into its own in the late 1990’s. It hasn’t turned out that way, but online retailing has made its mark and it has impacted regional mall tenancy. It’s one reason why you don’t see many bookstores of music stores inside malls anymore.

          To your comment about more bookstores, Borders is dead. Barnes and Noble is still standing but it faces immense competition from Amazon. I can’t see more bookstores unless they are of the independent variety located in communities that aren’t near major traffic areas that can support big box retail. We have stores like that where I live. They do very well.

          I also think Best Buy isn’t long for this world.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            Best Buy is doing a great job of following Circuit City’s example:

            They see inexperienced minimum wage zombies as providing similar value as experienced workers with television, or computer, or stereo, or music, or software expertise… for less money!

            When Circuit City did it, they removed one of the reasons you’d go to Circuit City instead of somewhere else. Now that Best Buy is doing it, they’re removing one of the reasons you’d go to Best Buy instead of the internet.Report

            • Avatar Dave says:

              I’ve also been in stores where the ratio of employees to customers is unusually high. Not only are there inexperienced zombies, but there are hordes of them!

              Is it any wonder that people view Best Buy as a de facto showroom for Amazon?Report

          • Avatar Kim says:

            my comment wasn’t more bookstores. It was an acknowledgement that “Sex Sells” and that bars don’t do it for everyone.

            There’s a good market there. Maybe the bookstore didn’t cut it. Try again, America!Report

        • Avatar Michelle says:

          Kim–I think it depends on the location of the mall. I don’t see Nordstrom’s or Macy’s dying out anytime soon. As for them becoming more ” outdoorsy,” again location matters a lot. Here, in Greensboro, it’s not a big deal because of the climate. But how many people are going to want to schlep through an outdoor mall in Minneapolis in the winter? Or the summer, for that matter, when the humidity and mosquitoes take over?Report

        • Avatar superdestroyer says:

          Bookstores are a thing of the past. Barnes and Noble are limited and the percentage of the population that actually reads is going down.

          Regional malls will survive to sell clothes to women for some time. I think women’s will be last thing that can be replaced on line because the return policy of internet retailers cuts margins too much.Report

  10. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    The DeBartolos made their money in building shopping malls. No malls, no five Super Bowls.Report

  11. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    I once entertained a concept of turning dead malls into growing spaces for local produce. All the HVAC is already there, I thought. These malls are often found in the vicinity of large run-down apartment complexes, I should be able to find workers: such an operation would need lots of workers.

    Ran the numbers on an old mall: it just didn’t add up. The real estate under them is too valuable.Report

    • Avatar Dave says:

      There’s been a lot of discussion in my corner of the real estate world about converting retail space to medical space. This is probably one of the most ambitious examples of it that I’m aware of. Most of the enclosed regional mall space was converted to medical use and leased to Vanderbilt University Medical Center on a long-term basis.

    • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      I wonder what would drive the real-estate value down enough to make that happen?

      Or another alternative, lots of malls have flat roofs. Rooftop gardens?Report

  12. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    As I’m sure many of you know, the film Dawn of the Dead (1978) is set in a shopping mall overrun by zombies, which in the original is played as a bit of a satire on consumerism (not so much in the remake). At any rate, there’s a scene in which the heroes first enter the mall via helicopter and one of them says something like, “What is that?” and the other replies, “It’s one of those big, new shopping centres.” The line now gets a big laugh, but the interesting thing is, for 1978, it was necessary to make sure the audience knew what was going on!Report

  13. Avatar Damon says:

    I grew up in an area where the closest mall was two hours highway. Going to the mall was an event, and an all-day affair. Back then it was exciting.

    Now? I hate them. I actively avoid them after October to avoid all the xmas shoppers and only go to them when I need to either try something on, return something that I’ve bought online, or need can’t get the product I want online/in the timeframe desired.

    Why? Too many people. Too many idiots who don’t know how to park and who will block traffic waiting for that one close spot to open up rather than go up another floor and park on the completely empty lot up there, who wander around aimlessly, veering into my path, and who make “shopping” a form of entertainment, not a task to be completed as quickly as possible.Report