Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, malls in America, while open, were lively, crowded spaces. They were the place everyone, boys and girls, old and young, went to. However, once they closed, whether temporarily or permanently, the atmosphere completely changed. Malls became eerie, almost as if the building had been abandoned, or was “dead.” This phenomenon is known as “kenopsia,” the feeling of seeing a place usually filled with people now empty. This feeling fascinated many people, so many that over the next decade, it evolved into its own subculture. Now, a simple search can lead to hundreds of videos and photographs showcasing empty malls. While interesting as a subject of visual art, the dead mall is no longer just an internet subculture. Many malls in America, over the past few years, have been shut down, resulting in them becoming “dead” permanently. This phenomenon has raised many questions regarding what is happening to America’s malls, whether they can be saved, or whether they are even worth saving.
Over the past decade, anchor stores within American malls have been declining. According to Joseph Tokosh from Kent State University, Sears, Macy’s, and JC Penny had closed from 20-25% of their stores in America as of 2018. Since then, that number has only continued to rise. According to Green Street Advisors, a research firm that deals with real estate referenced in The New York Times, “more than half of all mall-based department stores would close by the end of 2021.” There are many factors that led many anchor stores within malls in America to close their doors. One of the biggest factors was the rise of online shopping sites such as Amazon. According to Fujie Rao, from the department of architecture, mall anchor stores such as Macy’s, Sears, and JC Penny have been struggling to compete against online retail. People are now spending more time shopping at home online rather than in physical stores. This has resulted in many brick-and-mortar department stores closing down due to a lack of customers. Another big factor is consumers choosing discount department stores such as Walmart, Target, and T.J. Maxx over the anchor stores within malls. According to Sapna Maheshwari from The New York Times, T.J. Maxx made over one billion more dollars than Macy’s in 2015 and has continued to make more sales ever since. This shift in cheaper discount stores over the more expensive department stores has caused malls’ anchors to lose money.
Malls have made many changes in order to both try to keep their doors open and bring new consumers in. One prime example of this is the American Dream mall. American Dream was not just designed to be a mall; it was a mega mall. Mega malls like American Dream were not built to be just bigger in size, but also bigger in entertainment. They hold more than just the popular retail stores consumers see everywhere. American Dream, for example, has both an indoor DreamWorks-themed waterpark and an indoor Nickelodeon-themed amusement park. It also has two indoor mini golf courses, two ski rinks, an aquarium, a LEGO-themed playground, a wave pool for surfing, and even a Ferris wheel outside. In addition, it has full service restaurants, from fine dining such as Carpaccio to fast food such as Five Guys, not just a simple food court. American Dream even partners itself with local hotels within the area to make it easier for visitors to find a place to stay. American Dream, along with many other mega malls, now seems to be an indoor vacation spot for visitors rather than a shopping center for locals. In addition, many department stores within malls including Macy’s, Dillard’s, and Sears have created websites for consumers to shop online. This way, the companies have the benefits of both online and in-person retail. In addition, the websites also help advertise current deals and sales within the stores. The websites also can assist consumers in finding the nearest stores and offer awards for frequent shoppers who have memberships.
However, these changes have not been able to save malls from being closed. Despite creating their own shopping websites, department stores still struggle to compete against Amazon. According to business reporter Corey Goldman, Amazon led many department stores to have to create websites alongside their brick-and-mortar stores in the first place. Now, to make matters worse for department stores, Amazon has branched out into physical stores, making it even harder for retails to compete with the efficient shopping experience Amazon offers. In addition, according to The Simon Property Group, one of the largest mall operating companies , consumers are more likely to turn to online shopping over brick-and-mortar stores. This is due not only to convenience, but also to avoid the risk of Covid-19. The pandemic and related restrictions made malls in America lose even more money and consumers. The quarantine escalated the issues malls were already facing and made matters worse. Even American Dream mall, with all its fancy attractions, suffered financially due to these restrictions, possibly even more than the regular malls. Being so large, American Dream took seventeen years to build. Then, unfortunately, once it was complete, it opened its doors at arguably the worst possible time: 2019, just a year before Covid hit America. Mega malls, unlike regular malls, rely much more on foot traffic from vacationers in order to stay open, due to making most of their money from the big indoor parks and rides. If anything, going bigger and expanding completely backfired on mega malls during the pandemic, resulting in them closing along with the regular malls.
Some economists may argue that malls are outdated and therefore should simply be destroyed. Green Street Advisors states that malls will become “irrelevant retail destinations” due to the closing of many anchor stores. However, while it is true that many department stores within malls have declined in popularity, that does not mean the entire mall itself is no longer an important part of the community it is in. Malls provide teens with public spaces to socialize and move away from parents’ supervision. Sirpa Tani from the Department of Teacher Education of the University of Helsinki, describes malls and other similar places as “loose,” meaning the area is not always used for its primary intention. Teens enjoy places such as the mall because, while they could shop or eat, they can choose not to. It is a place where the teens can simply socialize and “hang out.” When asked about why they enjoy going to the mall over hanging out at home, one teen named Juke explained in an interview, “‘Well because you don’t feel like staying at home…because there you have rules and all….We are just for once free [here].’” Malls provide a safe escape for communities’ teens to simply be themselves without worry.
If malls are shut down and destroyed, not only will America lose important places for teens to socialize; communities will also lose large amounts of space that could be utilized. According to Patricia Kirk from WealthManagement.com, rental prices for warehouses are now higher than ever due to the lack of available space for companies. Along with that, according to Chris Arnold, a financial reporter from npr.org, “…the U.S. is more than 3 million homes short of the demand from would-be homebuyers.” Malls are large facilities that could provide more than enough space to solve these issues. Destroying them would not only be a waste of resources, but also destroy a potential solution to these problems.
Some communities in America have been able to successfully save their malls and other large buildings by converting them into facilities that provide more essential services and spaces. Providence, Rhode Island, for example, was able to successfully convert an abandoned mall. The city transformed The Arcade Providence, the first and oldest indoor mall in America, into a housing facility. According to Arcade Providence’s website, inside the building now consists of small micro apartments, restaurants, a bookstore, and two salons. The Providence apartments may be smaller and lack household items such as stoves; however, this is not much of a problem as they are directly above restaurants, and residents are allowed to bring portable electric stoves. Residents can easily walk to get a meal or a salon treatment, saving gas money and reducing air pollution. Along with that, the locals in the town of Memphis, Tennessee, were also able to successfully convert an abandoned Sears building into a multi-use development called Crosstown Concourse. The facility currently holds a highschool, art galleries, restaurants, live music events and even healthcare facilities. Both of these facilities now pride themselves as places of community and bringing people together, similar to how typical shopping malls brought many different people together.
So, is it possible for American malls to make a comeback? Perhaps they can, but it will take more than just adding new fancy attractions or websites. They must make large changes and provide what consumers are now currently demanding, which may not include large shopping centers. If more malls shift their focus from making sales to making a connection with their community, like Arcade Providence and Crosstown Concourse, they too can adapt to a changing world and provide people something that online shopping and discount stores cannot.
American Dream. (2021). Attractions and Tickets, Food and Drinks, Book Your Stay. https://www.americandream.com
Arcade Providence. (n.d.). Retail, History, Microlofts. https://www.arcadeprovidence.com/
Ark, T. V. (2020, March 5). Crosstown High: Innovative Memphis school in a vertical urban village. Getting Smart. https://www.gettingsmart.com/2020/03/05/crosstown-high-innovative-memphis-school-in-a-vertical-urban-village/
Arnold, C. (2022, March 29). There’s never been such a severe shortage of homes in the U.S. Here’s why. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2022/03/29/1089174630/housing-shortage-new-home-construction-supply-chain
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Thomas, L. (2019, October, 22). More than 17 years in the making, American Dream megamall’s story was shaped by retail’s upheaval. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/10/22/timeline-of-new-jerseys-american-dream-megamall-and-how-it-got-built.html
Tokosh, J. (2018). Is the Macy’s in my mall going to close? Uncovering the factors associated with the closures of Macy’s, Sears, and J.C. Penney stores. Growth and Change, 50(1), 403–423. 10.1111/grow.12269
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