How to Save America’s Malls From the ‘Retail Apocalypse’
There was no more potent emblem of the American Century than the Great American Mall. In the decades following the second world war, thousands of malls were built across the United States, and these "pyramids to the boom years," as the writer Joan Didion called them, seemed to epitomize the optimism of the American Dream.
And there's no greater symbol of the decline of Middle America than the images of rotting, abandoned malls which now litter the landscape of many states across the rust belt and the Midwest. The eerie pictures of caved in ceilings and snow-covered escalators create a dystopian landscape, which contrasts with the pictures of a happy, consumerist past.
The retail apocalypse, which has swept across the United States since 2015, carrying with it over 50 major retail chains, such as Toys“R”Us, Sports Authority, and American Apparel, as well as thousands of department stores, has decimated many malls. These stores acted as "anchors" for the malls, and without them, they're emptying out and slowly but surely going bust.
There's even a website called deadmalls.com, which is tracking this slow-motion train wreck. The site lists over 450 malls which are either already closed or in the process of doing so. This is over a third of all the enclosed malls in the United States.
These malls used to be focal points for people to come together not just for shopping, but also for socializing, family eating out and even exercising, as senior citizens formed ‘Mall-Walker’ clubs. Their decline is creating a void at the heart of many communities.
What can be done to turn around this negative trend? How can malls compete with the seemingly inexorable rise in online shopping? The answer lies in focusing on the things that they can do better than the online world. E-commerce may be superior in terms of cost and convenience, but malls are more capable of creating immersive experiences which can only be delivered in the physical world.
For larger malls, the best way forward may be to increase the proportion of their space devoted to entertainment. The aim would be to provide a standout experience for visitors, making liberal use of virtual reality and augmented reality. Examples of this type of mall would include Dubai Mall in the United Arab Emirates, the world’s largest, which features a vast aquarium, an indoor ice-skating rink and spectacular dancing fountains, as well as access to the world’s tallest building — the Burj Khalifa. The Mall of America in Minneapolis, the biggest mall in the United States, which is the size of five Yankee stadiums, is another example. It has at various times featured nonretail activities such as a nightclub, an amusement park, an aquarium, a wedding chapel, a community college, a clinic, bowling lanes and surfing simulators.
For small to midsized malls, there may not be this option due to restricted space. Another approach would be for them to specialize in one particular area. For example, they could reposition themselves as organic/cruelty-free malls, where all the products could be natural, fair trade and vegetarian, and the mall itself could be built from sustainable materials and powered by solar energy. Or they could be themed for a specific ethnic positioning — for example, concentrating on all things Italian, such as restaurants, fashion, art and music. Or showcasing the local area, featuring exclusively regional products, foods and artists. A third type of mall could be built around residential developments aimed at specific demographics, with a range of products and services to match. For example, a mall aimed at seniors could have a wider range of medical facilities, while one that targets young parents with children could have more child-care facilities, play centers and toy shops.
Thus, by offering immersive experiences that cannot be matched online, there's hope that malls can relaunch themselves and maintain their important role in creating a sense of community.
Mark Pilkington is author of "Retail Therapy: Why the Retail Industry is Broken — And What Can Be Done to Fix It," as well as a brand expert, entrepreneur, motivationalist and thought leader.
Mark Pilkington is author of Retail Therapy: Why the Retail Industry is Broken—And What Can Be Done to Fix It, and brand expert, entrepreneur, motivationalist and thought leader.