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Are Americans falling out of love with the shopping mall?

While high-end malls in the US thrive, many others have been unable to keep up with changing shopping demands of American consumers.
Shoppers in the upper level of Southdale Regional Shopping Center, first indoor mall in America, in this 1956 photo. Grey Villet / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images
Shoppers in the upper level of Southdale Regional Shopping Center, first indoor mall in America, in this 1956 photo. Grey Villet / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images

Cierra Dorsey has happy memories of hanging out at the mall as a teenage girl, an adolescent rite of passage under threat in parts of the United States as old-fashioned malls close their doors.

While high-end malls thrive, many others have been unable to keep up with changing shopping demands of American consumers, leading to obituaries in the US press with headlines such as “A dying breed – the American shopping mall” and “shopping malls in crisis”.

About 80 per cent of the country’s 1,200 malls are considered healthy, which means store vacancy rates of 10 per cent or less, according to CoStar Group data published in The New York Times.

That is down from 94 per cent in 2006, and there is even a website dedicated to documenting what some are calling the death of the shopping centre, deadmalls.com, keeping tabs on the latest closures across the country. Ms Dorsey remembers the old-style mall with nostalgia. “The first time my mum allowed me to go out by myself, it was in a mall,” says Ms Dorsey, a saleswoman at a natural products shop in Fairfax, outside the US capital. “I do have fond memories.”

Most of America’s malls were built in the 1950s and 1960s, as a growing network of highways connected suburban homes to futuristic urban shopping centres.

When they were first introduced, outfitted with sleek glass, shiny tiles, escalators and indoor fountains, they were an antidote to outdated open-air strip malls.

“We must remember that the 1950s and 1960s were bathed in the desire for the modern, and in this light the newness of malls gave them a real edge over the old downtowns and open-air shopping centres,” says the sociologist David Roelfs from the University of Louisville in Kentucky.

The mall also found a spot in popular culture. It was featured in several 1980s films, including Back to the Future and The Terminator. The first mall in the US was the Southdale Center in Minnesota, which opened in 1956 and is still operating today.

Victor Gruen, a pioneer for mall design, created them as a social gathering point. But the social dimension was quickly eclipsed.

“The mall quickly morphed into a more consumerist venue, where people went to be seen in the act of conspicuous consumption more than to build relationships with their neighbours,” says Mr Roelfs, who claims that no malls have been built in the US since 2009.

“It’s not that consumption is going down – consumption is going up, but we’re consuming differently in different places,” says the sociologist George Ritzer, the author of a book on consumption, Enchanting a Disenchanted World. “They are becoming more entertainment complexes.”

Developers are turning away from the traditional mall model and now opening mixed-use complexes, often outdoors, that feature shops, restaurants and green space. That is the idea behind CityCenterDC, a mix of commercial, residential and business complexes in the US capital. David Dochter from Cushman & Wakefield’s retail services group, the company behind the project, says consumers are looking for a different experience.

“They want a social environment where they are shopping. They want an experience, not just a product,” he says.

The Mosaic complex in Fairfax is a mixed-use space featuring a plaza, shops, food market and a children’s theatre on a 20-hectare footprint outside Washington.

“We wanted to create a gathering place for the community,” says Reed Kracke, a development associate at EDENS, which built the complex.

“It’s not the hectic environment you might see in a crowded indoor traditional shopping mall,” he adds.

“We really feel if we could capture the people’s time, their wallets will follow. If they spend their time there they will spend their money here as well, so we are really after capturing people’s time.”

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Updated: February 16, 2015 04:00 AM

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