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Requiem for the Mall

Can a little creative thinking save the classic American shopping center?
Attention mall shoppers! If that phrase rings a bell—if it leaves you reaching for a …

Can a little creative thinking save the classic American shopping center?

Attention mall shoppers! If that phrase rings a bell—if it leaves you reaching for a fake plastic credit card dubbed Fast Cash or Easy Money—then you were probably a child of the early ’90s. Why? It was the siren’s song of a popular Milton Bradley board game, Mall Madness, because the phrase was often followed by, “There is a clearance at the toy store.”

If I seem to know a little too much about Mall Madness, that’s because I have to confess: It was my favorite board game as a kid. In a definite sign of the more decadent times, the entire object of the game was to see who could blow through $150 the fastest. For a young girl, it was the best alternative to the actual mall. Not to mention, it was a much cooler place to shop ‘til you drop than the one in my small Georgia town. The Milton Bradley version boasted an arcade, movie theatre, record store and a pet shop. Eat your heart out, Georgia Square Mall.

Today, if you peek around the Internet on nostalgia websites, the game is often described as “vapid,” “superficial,” “materialistic” and, my favorite, “a sadistic form of capitalist indoctrination.” It’s definitely hard to imagine many parents endorsing Mall Madness as an edifying way for their young ones to play in these post-recession times. But who can really blame Milton Bradley? For many, many years, it was a simple fact: Love it or loathe it, the shopping mall was a quintessential part of the American identity. Just take a look at every iconic teen movie of the last few decades: Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Clueless. Mean Girls. Where do the characters spend a significant portion of their free time, either shopping or working? At the mall, of course.

But those days are likely gone. No new enclosed mall has been built since 2006. The typical anchor stores, Sears, Macy’s and J.C. Penney, are all struggling. (Sears has closed 300 stores since 2010.) And as a result, specialty stores like Aéropostale are losing the foot traffic they need to maintain sales. The teenage apparel chain recently announced that it’s shuttering 125 of its mall-based kids’ stores, P.S. from Aéropostale. (For more on the trend, check out Talking Points on p. 6.) While it’s easy to blame the advent of online shopping for the decline of the American mall, the answer isn’t quite that cut and dry. Fast-fashion chains like Zara and H&M are thriving, as well as off-price merchants like Marshalls and Kohl’s. And shopping malls anchored by upscale department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus are doing just fine.

It’s the mid-tier market catering to the amorphous middle class that can’t find its footing—much like the members of the group itself. There’s no denying that student debt, stagnant wages and an unstable labor market have all made it harder for the average American to get by. And when you only have $40 in your pocket, it’s easy to see why two tops at Kohl’s make for a more tempting prospect than one at a department store.

But don’t write the obituary quite yet for the American mall—not if José de Jésus Legaspi has anything to say about it. The former ad exec jumped on an opportunity to convert 10 failing malls to Hispanic cultural centers, boosting income and foot traffic by about 30 percent. Legaspi realized something that independent boutiques like Marcia’s Attic for Kids (See our feature on p. 26.) figured out years ago: Retailing is no longer solely about making a sale. It’s now about building a community and forging a connection with customers, and providing an experience that can’t be replicated online or within the nondescript, volume-driven confines of most off-price merchants. Legaspi’s centers offer grocery stores, dental care, medical care, immunization, banking and even a DMV. While one family member is shopping, another can tackle chores. There’s even live music on Sundays—a nod, Legaspi says, to the classic American bandstand.

There’s no reason why Legaspi’s format couldn’t catch on in other communities. The pet store and record store I loved during my Mall Madness days may be gone, but why can’t they be replaced with, say, interactive discovery centers for kids and dance lessons for adults? Instead of writing a requiem for the American mall and jumping on the next big shopping trend, investors would be wise to look to Legaspi’s example—and figure out a way to make retail centers sustainable for many generations.

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