The Internet Has Killed the Great American Mall

Malls are dying and it's mostly because we consumers like buying things on the Internet instead of, you know, walking and talking to real live sales people.

“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,” Rick Caruso, the C.E.O. of Caruso Affiliated, one of the largest privately held American real-estate companies, told his audience, which had gathered for the National Retail Federation’s annual convention.

Like Woodville Mall in Northwood, Ohio, shopping centers were meant to be places Americans could come and relax, socialize and feed that need to buy stuff. Later, these “classic gray box” style centers became the place where teenagers hung out in places and traded relevant pop culture news — I was standing outside of Victoria’s Secret back in 1996 when I learned that Tupac had been shot; I was inconsolable on the way to Hot Dog on a Stick — or wore midriff sweaters with plaid skirts while idly wandering in music stores. But apart from outdoor spaces like The Grove in Los Angeles, looking at many malls across the country these days is akin to staring at an empty grave.

The documentary Malls R Us noted above depicts much of what happened to our culture’s mecca for merchandise and even profiles Peter Blackbird, who runs the website DeadMalls.com, a catalogue of long-shuttered mall images.

Even mall fixtures like Gap and Sbarro have been forced to find new streams of attracting brick and mortar customers in order avoid bankruptcy. Gap is now allowing patrons to buy their products online and pick them up in a physical store, probably hoping consumers will grab a few more things as an impulse buy. On the other hand, Sbarros, one of the four big name mall food brands along with Cinnabon, Jamba Juice and Panda Express, blamed their bankruptcy on the significant decrease in shopping center foot traffic, reports the New Yorker. Honestly, the possibility that Cinnabon could follow a similar path especially breaks my heart because where else can you chomp down a full day’s worth of calories in one sitting with extra frosting? Are we not civilized?

Waning consumerism aside, some in the retail community say that malls were only ever about enacting a form of community or providing a glitzier version of main street for small towns. These buildings may have touted Hot Topic or JCPenney but they were really offering us the chance to feel like a real human beings through interaction, like a modern-day Morrocan souk or when they go on supply runs on The Walking Dead, and online shopping can’t give people that fulfillment.

“Humans have an innate sense of wanting to come together,” he said. “I bet the souk will be there long after Amazon.”

That may be true, but online shopping accounted for six percent of total sales during the 2013 holiday season. That's double from 2006, so maybe the souk should start an online chat room or something.

Image via Getty.