The (exaggerated) death of American malls
When I went home for Thanksgiving Break, I, like many college students, hung out with my hometown friends. On one of these outings, a friend and I took a trip to our local mall. While I knew it had been on the decline for a few years, I didn’t expect it to be as bad as it truly was.
The Beaver Valley Mall used to be a much more popular location. Once upon a time, Sears was one of its anchor stores. It also had an American Eagle, a Hot Topic, and both a Piercing Pagoda and a Piercing Pagoda Too! Like many, the Sears shut down after their 2018 bankruptcy. Many retailers in the mall have since left, and now there’s only one Piercing Pagoda.
To me, It looked like we had entered the age that I would call “The Death of the American Mall.” The COVID-19 pandemic killed many already failing malls. With little to no customers, what reason did many of these retailers have to continue paying rent? As more and more stores left malls, fewer people had a reason to go to the mall, thus the remaining stores would have reduced customers, etc. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that starts when mall managers can no longer lease spaces.
But the pandemic wasn’t the start of this decline — it was only the nail in the coffin for many. Many big-name retailers appeared in the news because they were shutting down their stores. Sears, Macy’s, and JCPenny, for example, are some of the ones I recognize. I no longer see news of store openings for these staple department stores, only closures. The saddest part: malls were and continue to be a staple of suburban communities.
As these stores closed, consumers would have to travel further to get the same commodities. The distance isn't too much further though — a report from 2017 estimates only a three to six mile travel to the next mall.
Personally, I don’t want malls to go away. While I greatly appreciate the convenience of online shopping, it doesn’t fill the gap of the experience of just going out to the mall with friends or family and walking around and glancing into the various stores. It’s convenient to have so many unique retail options in such a space, not to mention the food options. There’s something about physical shopping that makes me much more willing to purchase something I may not need than online shopping, and I sort of like that.
The slow decay of my local mall has made me assume that malls across America are dying. But, fortunately, it doesn’t seem like that is the case. A study conducted in June 2021 found that five percent more people were shopping at physical malls than prior to the pandemic. So why do I still feel like American malls are dying?
I think, for me, it’s because I’ve changed my habits. The mall I went to so much when I was younger is dying, which makes me generalize that to the entirety of the mall system. Additionally, I go to the mall for different reasons. Before, it was almost expressly to go shopping with my family. The mall was never really a “social” place for me; it was where I went to lunch when I was on school field trips or when my mom decided I needed some new clothes. Now, the mall is just one of many means I have to purchase clothes and other goods; I go much less frequently, and I have much less of a “need” to go.
Some of my recent experiences also point to the fact that malls are far from dying. I went to the Ross Park Mall on Black Friday with some of my family, and it was very difficult to find parking. Some of the stores even had lines coming out of them, which I was not expecting. I may have outgrown my need for malls, but I don’t think the average consumer has. While my personal experience may have decided that American malls are dying, it’s looking like they’ll be around for at least another decade.