‘Dead’ Shopping Malls Shuttering Across America


The 1980s are long gone, and the decade’s most iconic hangouts are disappearing now too: shopping malls.

Turn on practically any teen-infused movie from the 1980s and at least one scene is likely to take place at a bustling shopping mall. The shopping mall was the Facebook of its day: after school or on the weekends, suburban teens flocked to malls to connect with each other. They would play arcade games, eat greasy mall food and browse sale racks, too. Adults flocked to malls too, for shopping, movies and to sit in those vibrating Brookstone chairs they would never buy.

But now, shopping malls are disappearing at such a rapid rate that there’s a Web site that lists “dead” shopping malls around the country. According to Amy Merrick for the New Yorker, some of the abandoned shopping malls have been converted into “community colleges, corporate headquarters, or churches.”

Some malls are being shut down because they’re health hazards, with water damage, mold, even asbestos. One thing though is increasingly clear: Shopping malls aren’t what they used to be. “In January, Rick Caruso, the C.E.O. of Caruso Affiliated, one of the largest privately held American real-estate companies, stood on a stage at the Javits Center, in New York, and forecast the demise of the traditional mall,” reports Merrick. Caruso said: “Within ten to fifteen years, the typical U.S. mall, unless it is completely reinvented, will be a historical anachronism—a sixty-year aberration that no longer meets the public’s needs, the retailers’ needs, or the community’s needs.”

Internet sales have taken a chunk out of mall sales, but not as much as you might think. Online sales hit six percent of total retail spending in the 4th quarter of 2013—a number that’s nearly doubled since 2006, explains Merrick. “Some retailers, understandably, are responding by focusing more on the online end of the retail business. Gap, which became synonymous with the American mall, is no longer counting on malls for growth.” Glenn Murphy, Gap’s C.E.O., told Merrick that its business is moving towards digital sales. “Mall traffic, for a number of years, has been slowing down. Whether it continues to decline somewhat over time, I think that’s realistic to assume.”

Even the iconic food court brands are struggling, reports Merrick. “Sbarro, which represents one of the four food groups of mall cuisine, along with Jamba Juice, Panda Express, and Cinnabon, filed for bankruptcy protection for the second time in three years. Court papers cited an “unprecedented decline in mall traffic,” meaning fewer hungry shoppers settling for foldable pizza slices.”

The suburban town square—shopping malls were the heart of many American communities. And all malls aren’t disappearing. The outdoor mall concept is thriving in some cities—making shoppers feel more like they’re doing something by being outdoors, rather than contained inside a stuffy building. But they only represent a small fraction of malls, the rest of which, it seems, have seen their prime—all while Amazon Prime gains momentum.

Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

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Image: Nicholas Eckhart

Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites OrganicAuthority.com and EcoSalon.com, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better. www.jillettinger.com.