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The story of the American mall

July 9, 2017
Joyce Schenk , Westfield Republican

Once upon a time, when the country was young, folks gathered into small communities, eventually forming villages. In those early days, being close to neighbors inspired a feeling of safety and made helping one another a way of life.

As small businesses developed, they too located near one another for mutual support and for the convenience of their customers. In time, villages grew into cities and the strings of businesses became the down town areas or suburban shopping centers.

Eventually, along came the malls. It's hard to remember a time when there were no malls, but they didn't actually come on the scene until the mid-50s.

The first of its kind was called "a new groundbreaking social experiment." Located just outside of Minneapolis, the sprawling multi-store structure was the start of a new era for shoppers.

From the 1950s to the 1990s, malls were built in every corner of the country. Each featured one or two anchor stores along with dozens of small specialty shops, restaurants, food courts, theaters, and other enticements that drew crowds of teens, women shoppers, mall walkers and many others.

When the malls were in their glory days, it was their convenience that brought countless folks to their comfort-controlled and well-stocked stores. In addition, many malls offered fine restaurants, entertainment, music lessons, nurseries, and on and on.

But, as with everything else in life, change was inevitable. Malls came under great pressure in the form of the retail revolution brought on by the internet and labeled e-commerce.

Simply put, the convenience of the malls was replaced in the hearts and minds of a new generation of shoppers by the even greater convenience of staying home and shopping on line.

Another factor in the change in the mall picture was that many of the larger "anchor stores" such as J.C.Penney, Macy's and Sears had also been affected by e-commerce. Many closed the doors of their mall outlets, leaving the facilities struggling with large empty spaces. Some malls, suffering 35 to 50 percent vacancy rates, forced managers to turn to non-traditional tenants like churches, medical clinics and university classes to fill their spaces.

Not all malls, however, were having a hard time. The "high-end" or luxury malls, which the industry calls "A list" malls, were still doing very well and are predicted to continue doing so.

Additional malls still showing success are those that have added such attractions as fine restaurants, theaters and other sources of entertainment.

But malls that have tried to replace high end anchor stores with discount stores and other low end retailers are classified as "B & C" malls. These are in trouble.

Like everything in the patchwork of American life, the mall story is an ongoing one. According to one authority on the subject, 10 percent of the estimated 1,000 malls currently functioning across the country will fail by 2022, just five years from now.

But, knowing how resilient and innovative the American business men and women are today, I wouldn't bet on it.



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