“Shopping for a pair of shoes, shopping for a hat; We’re buyin’ some of this, and we’re buyin’ some of that …” — from “Down in the Mall,” as performed by Warren Zevon
Since the first shopping mall was built more than 60 years ago in Edina, Minnesota, malls have represented the apex of American retail and social culture. If we needed anything, from a prom dress to a lawnmower, we headed to the mall, left our car in a vast parking lot, and attempted to navigate an endless variety of stores. We negotiated long, well-lighted corridors amidst throngs of fellow customers in a shop-‘til-you-drop mania.
I bought almost all my Christmas presents at a mall for several years; it was more convenient than driving from store to store. Everything was under one climate-controlled roof. Often our family would journey to the mall, separate and shop, and convene later at an onsite restaurant with our packages at our feet. We’d then compare purchases and talk about which stores were the most appealing. The mall was, simply put, part of our family’s weekly experience and part of the larger American culture. Like everyone else, we stopped shopping on Main Street and headed to the mall instead.
I remember the first time I read about the Mall of America shortly after it opened in Bloomington, Minnesota, in 1992. One of the first mega-malls, the MOA was the largest in the U.S. in total floor area and the third largest in North America in leasable space.
But like railroad travel, which gave way to planes and cars, malls are now being replaced by online retail and the new outdoor “walking retail” concept. Mall anchor tenants, some of them household names, are closing in droves. Many municipalities are attempting to revive their downtown and inner city regions with new, walker friendly retail developments, often placed adjacent to apartments and lofts. The irony is obvious, as the trend comes full circle. The advent of suburban malls hastened the decline of our inner city shopping districts. Now, the return to walking retail in downtown areas is rendering the suburban mall obsolete.
So what are we doing with our mall space? In California, one mall now houses a prominent tech firm. In Tennessee, another has been converted to a skating rink, a recreation center, a community college and a library. One of the nation’s oldest indoor retail spaces, located in Providence, Rhode Island, has been converted to small, one-bedroom apartments. Restaurants and other walk-in retail outlets now occupy abandoned malls.
Dozens of new schools and churches have utilized store space in malls. Once we worried that our kids were wasting too much time hanging out at the mall. Well, they're still there, only now they're attending class.
Margaret R. McDowell, ChFC, AIF, author of the syndicated economic column "Arbor Outlook," is the founder of Arbor Wealth Management, LLC, (850-608-6121 — www.arborwealth.net), a “fee-only” registered investment advisory firm located near Sandestin.