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What Killed the Shopping Mall?

Fashion times, they are ‘a changin. Many of the brands that once represented the ultimate ideal of what it meant to be a cool kid in the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s, have been abandoned by their once loyal markets. Stores like Abercrombie & Fitch, Aeropostale and others—once fixtures of youth style—have had difficulty maintaining their edge. It seems that the same thing is now happening to the physical hub of teen life in decades past: The shopping mall. Malls across the country are shutting down, and the percentage of malls considered “healthy” (determined by the number storefronts that are vacant) has declined by 14 percent since 2006, according to the New York Times. The success of malls depends on being full, so when a couple stores close up shop, it’s not long before others follow and the space becomes a ghost town. Business Insider reports that an entire 15 percent of America’s shopping malls are expected to “fail or be converted into non-retail space within the next 10 years.” That’s big.

I’ll come right out and say it: I’m a bad shopper. After being at a mall for an hour, my feet hurt, I’m sleepy, and the bad music is starting to get to my head. Even the oil-soaked soft pretzels can only do so much to improve my mood. Growing up in an urban environment, “going to the mall” was never something I did for fun. Therefore, I’ll never feel pangs of loss considering the prospect that there may be one fewer windowless shopping box. However, it cannot be denied that the closing of malls is indicative of several issues that extend far beyond the malls themselves.

Firstly, teen taste is changing. While clothes have always and forever been status symbols, teens are less inclined to purchase over-priced t-shirts just because they have “A&F” printed across the front. Similarly, they have turned against other brands that have not provided them with the merchandise they want. Many former staples of teen culture like Wet Seal and Delia’s have filed for bankruptcy, as their consumer base turned elsewhere for the latest trends. Perhaps this stems in part from the decline of distinctly “teen” trends. This generation seems to have come to reject clothing that is distinctly aimed at their age group. With twentysomething fashion and beauty bloggers serving as ambassadors of style to the teen generation, teens are more inclined to want to dress like young adults than like 15 year olds. Today’s teens have tended to reject youth-oriented looks in favor of brands like H&M, which provide cheap merchandise with an eye to more mature looks and high fashion trends.

Secondly, technological changes seem to be playing a role. Though the New York Times says that “less than 10 percent of retail sales” are done online, Delia’s has often been criticized for failing to be innovative, including not taking the importance of their Internet presence seriously enough. Despite my aforementioned hatred of spending time in the mall, I cannot deny that I have a major weakness for online shopping. I look online for specific items, as well as for more general style inspiration. With trends changing and the Internet at the center of our lives, companies that resist the need to evolve and adapt to the changing cultural landscape will continue to find themselves falling behind—sometimes irrevocably.

Finally, it’s interesting to note which malls are failing. While “middle class” malls traditionally anchored by stores like Sears and JC Penny are closing, upscale shopping centers are not experiencing the same hardship. In this way, the fate of malls seems to be mirroring America’s growing economic inequality. The stores in the middle of the road—neither expensive nor particularly cheap—are having trouble finding audiences. The New York Times speculates that this may also be due in part to the growing number of other expenses teens are investing in, like electronics. Either way, it’s common knowledge that the middle class is shrinking as the gap between rich and poor widens. The plight of these “middle class” malls may be a sad physical reminder of this fact.

What, then, can the classic “mall brands” do to survive? It’s going to take an extreme makeover. I think the biggest change will need to come from their perception of their audience. Rather than dividing young consumers into “juniors” and young adults, stores would be well served to see their clothing as having the potential to appeal to everyone. Take Forever 21, for example. Whenever I’ve shopped there, I’ve witnessed everyone from 13 to 20 year olds purchasing the same tops and accessories. This approach also allows stores to sell more clothes to more people—it’s a win-win.

Brands also need to be willing to adapt, and to do so quickly. Just because something was successful in the past doesn’t mean it will work forever. Teen tastes are fickle and are changing even more quickly with the growing influence of the Internet. Gone are the days when major brands were the be-all end-all when it comes to tastemaking. With the recent decline and collapse of many industry giants, it’s clear that young people are not afraid to turn their backs on the brands they once loved. No company should consider itself immune.

Could we soon find ourselves in a mall-less America? I, for one, wouldn’t be complaining. But whether or not we find ourselves emotionally invested, we should still be interested in this change, because it can tell us a lot about our rapidly changing country and culture.

What’s your take on this change in Americans’ shopping habits? Can malls and mall brands make a comeback?

Zoë Randolph

UC Berkeley '15

Since graduating, Zoë's served as a content marketer for non-profits and tech startups. She worked remotely and traveled the world full-time with her fiancé before becoming a freelance writer and settling (at least for now) in Montréal, Quebec. She likes reading good books, learning new things, and watching Real Housewives argue on TV. You can keep up with her writing over at zoerandolph.com.
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