The extinction of an American institution—the shopping mall

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Walking through the White Flint Shopping Mall is a somewhat harrowing experience.

Only four years ago, the mall boasted a Borders bookstore. It went out of business in 2011, together with its parent company, under the combined pincer of the recession and Amazon. That same year, the mall’s movie theater closed its doors forever, at the hands of the credit crunch and Netflix. In 2012, Bloomingdale’s closed down its 24,000 square meters outlet and demolished it, laying off 158 employees, and effectively reducing the mall’s size by one fifth. It was the death toll for a store that had had among its first customers actress Liz Taylor, designer Donna Karan, and television anchorwoman (and wife of the Federal Reserve’s ex chairman, Alan Greenspan) Andrea Mitchell.

One year later, the 1,900 square meters fast-food court closed forever, together with another, more upscale restaurant. Nowadays, the three-stories structure is virtually empty, save for a few outlets on the first floor, and a big store owned by Lord & Taylor that is carrying out a Quixotic Attempt against the owners of the mall—property developers Lerner and Tower—to keep the center open.

The agony of the White Flint Shopping Mall is just one example of an accelerating trend in the US economy—the disappearance of the shopping mall. Born in 1952, these gigantic buildings that accommodate tens (if not hundreds) of stores, soon became an integral part of the American culture and society. Anyone above the age of 20 will remember how they used to go to ‘the mall’ as little kids. Malls were places designed to combine the concept of ‘shopping experience’ and ‘entertainment’ in mind.

Today, however, that ‘experience’ becomes associated to another industry: the internet. Every online company offers some sort of ‘experience’. And the shopping mall is the biggest victim of it. Since 2007, not a single one has been built in the United States. It is an astonishing change, particularly if we remember that only in 1990, 19 of them were opened. In 2004, there were 1,100 ‘enclosed malls’ in the United States. Nobody knows the figure nowadays, but it is probably more than a 10 percent lower.

Online shopping and gaming has a lot to do with the demise of the mall. But there are other factors. Gentrification—that is, the return of the upper and middle classes to the cities, that they had abandoned top mover to the suburbs in the 50s, 60s and 70s—is another major factor. As the poor return to the cities’ peripheries, upscale stores go either online or to the center. And, amongst today’s youngsters, the car is not as important as it used to be for their parents. So, it is better to have a store close to home than a huge center twenty kilometers away.

There is, finally, a third factor—the mall was based on the idea of massive, large-scale production. Today, however, customization and exclusivity are slowly but surely gaining a foothold in the American consumer’s psyche, particularly, again, among those who used to be the malls primary targets: middle class families.

Interestingly, as shopping malls fade from America’s landscape, they are starting to become prevalent in the emerging and frontier markets of Asia and even Africa. As middle classes emerge and their consumption and transportation habits change, they are draw to this type of shopping outlets. However, in its motherland, America, the shopping mall is ready to fade away.

About the Author

Pablo Pardo
Pablo Pardo is Washington DC correspondent of El Mundo. Journalist especialized in International Economics and Politics.

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