When I was a kid reveling in the rampant consumerism of the 90s, I had fantasies of living in the mall because the mall in my town had a K.B. Toys and a Great American Cookie Company in the food court. It was awesome. Some of the most vivid dreams I've ever had were variations on this basic narrative: a genie/long-lost railroad tycoon relative gives me the deed to the mall for my birthday and I get it all to my greedy little self. I can play with all the toys, eat all the cookies, and run up all the down escalators without some jerk behind the Strawbridge & Clothier cosmetics counter screaming at me to stop. The mall was the place that fulfilled all my wildest of materialistic yearnings. Then online shopping took off and the mall started shedding stores faster than a medieval leper sheds appendages.
Double-teamed by the convenience of Amazon and the recession, malls have been hemorrhaging revenue for a while now. Why would anyone want to wander through the doughy fog emanating from Cinnabon and Auntie Aunn's trying to find vintage t-shirts when the internet has all the t-shirts you could ever want? This is a question malls across America had been hard-pressed to answer until the Gilmcher Realty Trust, owner and operator of fine concrete shopping labyrinths all over the country, decided it was going to start making its malls "Internet-proof."
Just how does one go about internet-proofing a mall? According to the New York Times, it starts with selling people on the mall experience. At Gilmcher's Scottsdale Quarter — which is serving as something like a petri dish for the mall-as-experience concept — "the mall experience" includes stuff that people just can't get on the internet, like the chance to make their own crafts and kill as the kiln works them over or get their hair blown-dry by an army of scissor-less hairstylists. It means that mall patrons can do yoga at the mall, buy kale salads at the mall, or even look at the booty cam view of the jeans they're thinking about buying.
The internet can't offer us any of those things (yet), which is why that Gilmcher's mall revenue has been rising after a steep decline during the recession. As testament to all that fresh money, the Scottsdale Quarter has made sure that 20 percent of its stores are now service- or experience-oriented (rather than retail), evidence of a broader shift in mall business models that has led Rick J. Caruso, chief executive of the company that developed The Grove in Los Angeles, to muse about how "wonderfully ironic" it is that malls are now starting to approximate the very shopping venue they had originally intended to obviate: traditional Main Streets.
It's really easy to buy stuff online. Frighteningly easy. You can buy like twenty books in a minute if you blindly trust Amazon's recommendations. If you were in a brick and mortar book store, the sheer physical weight of that huge mountain of books would probably, unless you were either the Hulk (and then why are you in a book store, hmm?) or had no qualms about looking like a crazy person in a public place, make you put at least a few back. The mall is a giant bazaar where people low like cattle at the nervous teenager making their Orange Juliuses or parents lose their frightened children in forests of discounted sweaters. It's easy to shop at the mall because everything you could possibly ever hope for is right there (unless your mall sucks, then too bad for you). The mall has conveyor belts that will literally carry you from place to place as if you were a helpless field mouse lost in the food court and the escalator was a bird of prey that wanted to eviscerate your wallet on its perch in the third floor Banana Republic. The mall, with its attempt to centralize your consumption, is really just an early version of the internet that still exists because people have invested a lot of time, money, and effort into building huge shopping structures.
Maybe places like the Scottsdale Quarter are attracting more people, but it's really besides the point. Malls are just anachronisms that are trying really hard to convince people that they're not anachronisms. It doesn't matter if people go to malls for the "experience" of having hot Sbarro grease drip down their fingers, or if they derive some tactile satisfaction from touching the clothes they want to buy before they buy them. The internet will figure out ways for people to have whatever experiences malls can offer, only it'll offer better and more varied experiences, like with holograms or whatever. Every mall owner should get out of the game while it's still possible, and, as a show of good faith, I'll be willing to take all those mall deeds and make sure those empty malls get put to good use.
Mall's New Pitch: Come for the Experience [NY Times]