Have U.S. malls lost their sense of community?

Photo: RetailWire
Sep 17, 2019
Nikki Baird

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from the blog of Nikki Baird, VP of retail innovation at Aptos. The article first appeared on Forbes.com.

In April, analysis from Thasos showed mall traffic, after moving back into positive territory from July to December 2018, was back to year-over-year declines.

The draw of experiential retailers like Apple, Eataly and Tesla weren’t found to be enough to reverse the declines. Neither is it likely that entertainment destinations like movie theaters, Legoland or Dave & Busters, nor a wing of outdoor restaurants will turn things around.

Ironically, malls in other parts of the world, from my own experience, are thriving. Mexican malls have playgrounds and verandas stocked with places for people to linger. In the Philippines, crowds flood out of nearby churches to roam wide aisles and a vibrant mix of fresh food and grocery amidst the traditional clothing and electronics stores.

It’s easy to be dismissive — “People only go for the air conditioning” or “Online shopping just isn’t that entrenched there yet” — but that’s missing what malls in these regions have that American malls don’t anymore: community.

Indeed, what drove home this point was watching a resurrected American mall from the 1980’s in Stranger Things (Season 3). The busy mall wasn’t all about offering convenience, it was about hanging out with friends.

In the meantime, food halls are thriving. The stores aligned with these market halls are smaller — everything is smaller, except for the community areas. The seating is communal and central. The entertainment is constant and ever-changing.

Food halls are one big party all day long, while malls are vast, echoing caverns that are more interested in kicking out “the teens” than in doing anything that might capture their interest.

As more consumers pile into cities with high housing costs and challenging commutes, community centers will become even more important. People might want to live in tiny houses, but they want to hang out with their friends in airy places that provide lots to do.

Malls have airy down to a science — the rest of it, though? There’s still a lot of work ahead. And they’d better hurry. The health of all their tenants depends on how quickly they can get their own vitality and sense of community center back.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How can malls revive their “sense of community”? Would more community events and activities help? Are experiential retail and entertainment options over-hyped as traffic drivers?

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29 Comments on "Have U.S. malls lost their sense of community?"

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Paula Rosenblum

When I lived in the Midwest in the ’80s, malls were totally the place to be. Not just for kids. The inner cities were problematic, so the mall was the safest place to be to experience concerts and other forms of entertainment.

Remember Tiffany? Debbie Gibson? These people got their fame doing mall concerts.

Can malls recreate that sense of community now? It’s a little tricky as there are so many other forms of entertainment, but I think the answer is yes. I believe mall operators got a bit lazy — and relied on anchor stores to drive traffic. Now they’re starting to work on bringing the mall back to life (the anchor stores sure wont!).

I’ve seen some great examples of this down in Miami and other tourist areas. Now the stores within the malls have to make their assortments more interesting, too.

Cathy Hotka

The polished granite box near me now features only a CVS, a Cheesecake Factory, a World Market and a Starbucks. The rest is vacant. We have changed the way we shop, and this vacancy spiral can’t end well for malls, no matter what kind of experiences they attempt.

Chris Buecker

Yes, more community events could be helpful. Experiential retail is fine but not bound to malls. Malls also will need to downsize. Big is not always the best option.

Neil Saunders

Malls are a mixed bunch. Some are still very successful and draw people in. Others are fading fast and are ultimately doomed. Most are somewhere in-between.

There are quite a lot of issues for failing malls: poor design with no natural light which means they are not a nice place to hang out. Ditto for dated design. A reliance on anchors which are, themselves, failing. A lack of interesting retailers or relevant services. And so the list goes on.

The cure for a lot of this is imagination and thinking beyond how to commercialize every square inch. Malls may need to invest in areas that don’t drive direct returns like places for people to sit and work or areas for street markets and local vendors. It simply isn’t enough to tack the word “experiential” onto offers which are fairly mundane.

Even then not all malls will survive. We simply don’t need the number that we once did and some are not worth the return on investment.

Dick Seesel

No matter how much mall developers try to repurpose empty anchor space with health clubs and movie theaters, these are not tenants that draw people toward the center of the mall where they can interact. (Food halls may be the exception.) I’m old enough to remember Southdale Mall (the first fully enclosed shopping center in the U.S.) serving as a new “town square” in the suburbs of the Twin Cities, where I grew up.

Did malls lose their draw as gathering places because of the decline of locally based department stores, followed by the decline of brick-and-mortar generally? Or did mall anchors close because people were no longer attracted to the mall? It’s a “chicken or egg” puzzle with no apparent solution.

Zach Zalowitz

Good question Dick. My take is, people generally got less interested in malls. The merchandise mix waned and they realized they could get online what previously took a mall trip. This gave rise to trying to reinvent ways to get them back in and, to your point, the theater/health clubs don’t get inside traffic, they get traffic to where they are physically located in the mall. For Phipps in Atlanta, the movie theater is in middle but I also don’t think it drives that much more traffic (during the night?) to the high-end stores. My point is, the mall needs to have a new purpose.

Lisa Goller

Malls’ social, multisensory experiences could entice shoppers away from the convenience of e-commerce.

Shoppers seek unique, fun experiences they can share on social media and malls make ideal social venues for live entertainment, bowling alleys and amusement parks.

Also, to align with consumers’ health and wellness lifestyles, some malls have installed hockey rinks and soccer fields to encourage community fitness. Other malls offer farmers markets for fresh, locally produced food and unique artisan products that support the local community.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.

To revive a sense of community malls need to replicate at least part of what makes up a community. Simple additions like a post office or library branch can add some destination options. However, consider all of the things that make up a community and see if a mall could offer some of these activities. Food halls in the form of local farmers offering their goods on a non-busy day would be a start. Health screenings would be potentially attractive as well as nutritionist counseling. How about a day when customers can bring their pets to the mall for grooming and health tips? Invite the local high school marching band to practice one day in the mall (like a remake of the movie Oklahoma). Use the malls’ multi-purpose rooms for meetings like town counsel, school board, home and school associations, AA, Weight Watchers, etc. The key is to replicate a sense of community, with the only real limitation being our imagination.

Lee Kent

I Love all the creative thinking here. Yes, it comes down to knowing the community you serve and giving them something they will enjoy and that serves a purpose. Fortunately for me, the mall closest to me is thriving. At least as far as traffic goes. I don’t know what the numbers are. For my 2 cents.

Zach Zalowitz

Malls definitely can revive the sense of community, but not without some serious changes. I for one think major book-end department stores should begin to vacate and (to the other question) I think experiential retail is *not* over-hyped — it’s just on a maturity curve and hasn’t fully caught on with most retailers. Experience is the only leg up in physical retail, so I’m actually left wondering why it hasn’t caught on quicker. For example, there should be a Peleton studio in every mall. Sell men’s business casual clothing? You should have personal stylists that track and understand your customer preferences and sizes (looking at you J.Crew and Banana Republic). Coffee snob? Barista lessons. Aspiring photographer? Photo lessons and post-editing lessons (why isn’t there an Adobe store, yet?). I’m longing to go back to my youth in the ’90s where the mall was the place to be, but I think given the macroeconomic issues most retailers are afraid to invest and take a risk.

Brandon Rael
One would argue that shopping malls never were a reflection of the local communities that they served. In hindsight, little if nothing was done to tie back the gathering place to the community, other than giving people a place to shop and plenty of national brands to choose from. The lifeblood of local communities are our main streets, downtowns, and mom and pop stores which sponsor elementary school kids’ uniforms, have charity events and are accessible to all without the stress of dealing with shopping mall traffic. Indeed, the Long Island suburbs had the proverbial malls, which were the hangouts for all of us ’80s kids and our families. The mall had everything under one roof: department stores, toy stores, arcades, movies and just a place to run around and burn off some steam. The malls and department stores had their heyday, but changing consumer preferences have irrevocably changed how and where we shop. Our family would rather shop local, connect with our community and support shop owners who have known us since our kids… Read more »
Georganne Bender

Malls lost their sense of community a long time ago, way before Apple stores became the reason to visit.

In the ’90s our local malls had entertainment, like concerts by Avril Lavigne, book signings with Nancy Drew’s Emma Roberts, and Pokémon parties that blocked access to almost every mall store. Santa was a big deal, those horrifying Easter Bunnies were a big deal. There were mall-wide sales and every retailer participated. Even the busiest malls near me don’t do that anymore.

The mall was the place to be, the place we met and ate and shopped because the mall management worked hard to make sure that happened. That’s not true any more. A big part of why so many malls are wastelands is because the people who run them gave up. The party has moved somewhere else. Can they regain that sense of community? Probably, but it will require hard work and a whole lot of word of mouth.

Heidi Sax

You’re bringing me back to my Northbrook Court days, Georganne.

But I have to ask: Did adults ever love a mall? Pokémon, Avril Lavigne, Santa… these all bring children flocking. My parents would drop me off with $20 and that was that. I feel like youngsters were always the driving force behind the success of America’s shopping malls.

And Gen Z has a much higher standard for shopping than even Millennials did. The evidence shows they like to shop in stores. Yet with the world of e-comm at their literal finger tips, why should they put up with messy stores, poor product availability, and lackluster service? And they can still have the “sense of community” that Instagram provides them.

Unfortunately, it’s mall stores that are most plagued by these issues. The experience at Zara in NYC’s Bryant Park is night-and-day from Zara at Westfield’s Montgomery Mall. If you don’t live in a city, why not buy online? You can touch and feel the products from your bedroom and still return them for free.

Georganne Bender
Adults love a mall! All of the events I mentioned were attended by kids AND their parents, because back then the mall was a community gathering place. The Pokeman Party was loaded with adults — some of us love anything that smacks of ComicCon. You bring up a good point about Gen Z having higher standards for shopping, but have you ever seen a dressing room after a group of tween girls have tried on clothing? God love the sales associates who have to clean it up. Instagram is cool, but if it’s a community, it’s not one that exists beyond the app. You follow people you don’t know and probably will never meet. How’s that community? It would be pretty lonely to sit on your phone all day just looking at posts — at the mall you can hang with friends. Buying online is also a solitary thing. So I’m going to go back to what I said earlier, because if I have said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: shopping is… Read more »
Heidi Sax

Well said. I fear that thanks to their “connected” digital world, youngsters care less about being connected (and evidence shows they are more depressed and more lonely than ever before) in the physical world. And I think it feels to them like it checks a box in which they get the thrill of social interaction without actually experiencing in the physical world.

I’d like to think that creating more community-building events in American shopping malls will draw crowds. Our conversation has me thinking that organizers should arrange events with the implicit goal of getting adolescents off their screens. They should raise awareness on social, and craft collateral so resounding and compelling that kids can’t help but show up.

Georganne Bender

Good points, Heidi!

Rich Kizer

I fear that malls have a very large challenge bringing back foot traffic like the good old days. For the past years most malls (not all) have appeared to be mausoleum-like; not knowing what to do to increase customer foot steps. Now we talk about community. I hope that the virtual community interaction that so many people hold in their hands will not make the real-life “people interaction” at the mall a thing of the past. I think malls will need to hire talent that knows how to create events that people will come to see (like on-the-spot pop-up fashion shows featuring specific stores) while entertaining them, and so on. It is a daunting task!

Tony Orlando
Malls for the most part are fading away, but there are some things that can be done. Our mall was open in 1992 and, after the tax breaks ran out, the anchors packed it in and left. Slowly over time there was only about 25 percent open, and the rest of the monster anchors were shuttered. Two of my cousins and three other investors bought the entire mall for 10 cents on the dollar and have kept it clean and safe for many years. They added a huge University Hospital medical clinic which took over the Dillard’s, a Wildfire Dance team took over a large local department home store and a Planet Fitness opened where Sears used to be. Meanwhile the giant Kmart sits empty and a pile of empty storefronts still are waiting to be filled. We have a Pretzel Time and a Mexican restaurant with eight empty food court businesses. The mall makes money for the owners thanks to the outlying places, and the new clinic is doing very well. Look at the… Read more »
David Weinand

Malls have bifurcated completely and developers like Simon have built community around many of their “lifestyle centers” where there is not only shopping but entertainment, good food and even living spaces. I think it is too late for most C and D malls as entertainment and shopping options are so diverse now.

Jeff Sward

I think people are social animals and they crave social experiences. And malls have a huge opportunity to provide those social experiences. And oh by the way, shopping experiences as well. Malls stuck in the ’80s and ’90s will die, just like retailers stuck in that era. Evolved and reinvented malls will thrive. We will need less space invested in shopping and more space invested in social interaction. It will take a little exploring and experimenting, but an evolved mall will emerge and thrive.

Ryan Mathews
First of all, that loss of community feeling doesn’t just apply to malls, it is endemic across this country. If people don’t know their next-door neighbors — and aren’t all that interested in meeting them — they aren’t going to flock to the malls to hang with them. In many of the 1980s malls of Paula Rosenblum’s fond memories, the “community” was primarily made up of teens aka “mall rats.” Today those teens have a newer, hipper, cooler place to hang out. It’s called their bedroom. And BTW, those teens don’t need to visit anywhere where you have five stores selling Ralph Lauren Polos that they probably don’t wear. Sure you can get people to the mall on an event or occasion basis, but none of the current thinking will lead to the kinds of sustainable shopper populations malls enjoyed 20 or 30 years ago. As to why the pickup between July and December 2018, a cynic might note that there are these things called holidays, and pre-holiday sales, and pre-pre-holiday sales. And one last… Read more »
Gene Detroyer

Malls have always been the antitheses of community. They replaced the community that was Main Street and could never replicate it. Their purpose was different. Say what you want about entertainment, experiences and food, it was always about the stores.

Sure, we would go to the mall as teens to hang out. Wasn’t that one of the first things you did when a friend got a driver’s license? That used to be done in town.

You can’t build a community when the people who go aren’t a community to begin with.

Just a thought. I have lived in Manhattan for more than 20 years. Prior to that I lived for more than 20 years in a Metro New York suburb. There is more community in my neighborhood than there ever was in those suburbs of the ’80s. Even for my teenage grandchildren. They meet their friends and hang out at Starbucks. They don’t even need a driver’s license.

David Naumann

Malls in the ’80s became destinations for teenagers and family shopping trips. I don’t think what malls offer today is much different but people have changed and so have their shopping habits. Teenagers today spend more time interacting digitally than physically – with social media, video games, etc., unlike in the ’80s. Families seem more busy with children’s sports and school activities than I remember them being in the ’80s. These activities make less time to visit malls and when they do, they are on a shopping mission and want it to be convenient.

I don’t think I have been in a mall for almost a year and the thing that deters me is the traffic and parking. I would much prefer to shop at a free-standing store or collection of stores that are more easy to get in and out of – quickly.

Times have changed and malls need to reinvent themselves to make them a compelling destination again.

Scott Norris

Millennials are the generation least-likely to have a drivers’ license or own/lease a car and the most likely to want to live in a walkable urban neighborhood. Any venue dependent on acres of free parking and a long walk just to get to the front door really should reexamine their expectations. At the least, malls that are also transit hubs have a leg up. On the other end of the age spectrum, Southdale is planting senior housing towers in its parking lots — if you can’t have your customers drive to you, let them walk to you!

Paco Underhill

In other parts of the world mall operators have a better sense of cooperation with local government and the community. Malls may have libraries, schools, day care centers, government offices, even churches. I saw a mall in South Africa with a small stadium for high school sports right outside its food court. The solutions are out there – but it takes time, care and creativity to make them happen.

Gene Detroyer

It also takes a cultural shift of what malls are for. In those other counties, malls were not developed with a different “community” model. And that culture isn’t just the developers, but the basic culture of the countries.

Shep Hyken

“The old days” are exactly that — old. There weren’t nearly as many distractions, activities, etc. It used to be the kids would hang out at the mall and families would go together to the mall for shopping and entertainment. Today there is so much to compete for the attention of the consumer. Shopping alone isn’t what gets people to the mall. Community events are a good attraction. Entertainment complexes are a good draw. The focus is on doing “local” well. A national strategy won’t work the way it used to. It takes a local strategy. How well does the mall merchant’s association know their demographics and how to appeal to them? That’s a good place to invest a little time and money.

Ralph Jacobson

Gotta find that “secret sauce” for malls. Management companies need to look at the successes mentioned in the article and comments and take the best that will work in each local spot and market the heck out of it. One size does not fit all. It has to be localized.

Robin Mallory
4 months 7 days ago

Localization of these multi-purpose common areas will make them different than the 1980’s triple-decker, symmetrical “mall.” More people travel than ever, so it’s very obvious when the same stores are in every mall.

Creating natural common areas is tougher than it sounds when a mass of individuals wearing ear buds are in the same spot all focused on convenience. Rotating Arts exhibits (all forms of Arts) would give people pause, and a chance to exchange ideas.

Pulling together retailers/vendors based on cultural and lifestyle commonalities could work too. An organic farmer’s market, noon time food stalls for business people and a Sur La Table type store that can hold classes in organic foods and recipes.

But agree with all that say the word “mall” is still rather tainted with days of yore.

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