Boredom in the Ruins of the Mall
A host of observers repeatedly prophesy the death of the traditional shopping mall, disparaging the regional mall as an archaic spatial, material, and social experience. Somewhat paradoxically, many artists, scholars, and explorers pick over the literal ruins of dead malls in an exercise that in various hands reflectively dissects materiality, transparently bemoans lost youth, or launches another attack on mass consumption. Americans seem quite fascinated by the ruination of the enclosed regional shopping mall, fixated on its hulking material remnants, anxiously monitoring its demise in surviving malls, and acknowledging our boredom with much of the remaining shopping mall landscape.
Those people forecasting the mall’s demise may have felt their pessimism confirmed by last week’s news that the ubiquitous mall chain Claire’s is fighting off bankruptcy (a decline marketers have been watching for over a year). Claire’s decline may indeed confirm malls’ fundamental design liabilities and reflect broad economic and demographic shifts, but our fascination with the declining mall almost certainly risks pronouncing their death sentence too soon. While shifts in consumption and settlement patterns have transformed the contemporary shopping landscape for malls, our sheer boredom with the homogeneity and predictability of malls may be more dangerous to their survival than factors such as our attraction to online shopping or the decline of department stores.
Claire’s is part of a pantheon of stores that seem installed in nearly every American mall. Last week The Cut described Claire’s as a “beloved tween haven of body glitter and best-friends-forever jewelry,” and Claire’s suggests that it offers the young female consumer “innovative, fun and affordable products and services that cater to all of her activities, as she grows up, whenever and wherever.” From nearly 3000 stores in about 95% of American malls Claire’s hawks novel things like BFF bracelets, pink flamingo earrings, and daisy necklaces to “young women, teens, tweens, and kids.” More ears have been pierced at Claire’s than at any other American retailer, and while its American image is of an inexpensive “treasure hunt” mall shop, the chain has stores in Paris, the Ukraine, and China and an Icing brand that takes aim on the 18-35 year-old woman.
Claire’s decline follows the demise of many other retailers who tied their fates to shopping malls. The cemetery of mall chains includes men’s clothier Chess King (1968-1995), Thom McAn shoe stores (introduced in 1922, the brand is now sold only at Sears), B. Dalton booksellers (1966-2010), Sam Goody’s (nearly all converted to f.y.e. stores in 2008), and working-class women’s clothier Casual Corner (1950-2005). Other brands or chains have survived, some dramatically transformed and others on a more modest scale: for instance, novelty merchandiser Spencer’s Gifts continues to peddle black light posters, crude gag gifts, and “irreverent” things in more than 650 US stores; since 1987, Orange Julius’s legendary powdered egg drinks have been sold by Dairy Queen; and teen apparel retailer Aeropostale filed for bankruptcy last month.
Once viewed as mesmerizing places of material plenty and deeply embedded in our collective imagination, dying or emptied malls now dot much of an American suburban periphery glutted with retail space. On the one hand, consumers entertain a romanticized nostalgia for malls and particular chains, especially those that have now disappeared. This may not diverge from much of the popular fascination with ruins, though the anxiety inspired by dying malls is perhaps more unsettling than the corpses of now-emptied malls. On the other hand, though, nearly none of that nostalgia focuses on material things. Many of the voices memorializing malls simply wax nostalgic for their youth, rarely invoking the actual material things in malls or even the malls themselves: that is, a very modest amount of the popular commentary on malls’ demise laments the loss of commodities like Chess King jackets, and few people seem to hope that fountains, vinyl plants, and the unmistakable odor of Sbarro’s will become the standard for consumer design. Instead, most people at the regional mall’s wake focus on the social experience of mall shopping itself. This may suggest that malls’ zenith was not especially firmly tied to commodities, but was instead a staging ground for the shopping experience itself.
Nevertheless, the fascinated rhetoric over dead malls and the lack of surprise over Claire’s decline seems to confirm that we are generally disinterested in or actively dislike shopping malls. Twenty years ago suburban scholar Kenneth T. Jackson may well have put his finger on the pulse of this decline. Jackson recognized that mall construction and rental profits began to decline in the late 1970’s, and mall construction declined consistently after 1988. Jackson rooted this in something quite basic, suggesting that “Americans have finally become bored with malls or perhaps just tired of the effort it takes to navigate them.” The most fascinating implication of his analysis was that “malls have become so homogenized and predictable that they have lost much of their entertainment value.”
This probably comes as bad news for Claire’s, whose appeal revolves around novelty: Claire’s provides a host of unexpected or singular things that somehow capture a consumer’s idiosyncratic imagination. Claire’s relies on shoppers actually coming to the mall in the first place, and if shoppers have indeed become bored with the mall shopping experience they will never be beguiled by a unicorn rainbow trinket box. Many mall stores rely on a similar appeal to novelty to spur purchase: for instance, Yankee Candle simply hopes to capture our unexpected fascination with the odor of magical frosted forest; Spencer’s aspires to convince us that a gag gift will be a fine gift for a buddy; and Brookstone gambles that we will be enticed by a neck and shoulder sport massager. Like most shopping spaces, malls fundamentally “work” when they encourage imagination, and malls intensify that introspective day-dreaming by fostering experiences more like an amusement park than a Wal-Mart.
Perhaps the greater failure of the enclosed mall is that it has abandoned almost all pretense to being civic space that reaches beyond shopping alone. Much of the promise that planners once placed in malls as walkable civic spaces integrated with surrounding communities has instead resulted in private patrolled fortresses ringed by oceans of parking. Victor Gruen planned perhaps the country’s first mall, the 1956 Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota, which he imagined to be a mixed used civic space that included shopping as simply one dimension of community life. However, Gruen eventually was dismayed to realize that enclosed malls did not become broadly based walkable communities.
Despite all the gloom for the conventional regional mall, perceptions that the mall is inevitably dying are probably premature. In 2015 one report observed that about 80% of America’s malls were considered “healthy” (that is, with a vacancy rate less than 10%). However, Kenneth Jackson was probably correct in his instinct that the interchangeable regional mall–held down by the likes of Victoria’s Secret and Yankee Candle, engulfed by a jarring asphalt expanse of parking lots, and bearing only the slightest pretense to being a social space beyond consumption–may be on its last legs.
Howard Gillette Jr.
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Victor Gruen and Larry Smith
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Kenneth T. Jackson
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Richard W. Longstreth
1998 City center to regional mall: architecture, the automobile, and retailing in Los Angeles, 1920-1950. MIT Press, Boston, Massachusetts.
2013 Pedestrian Modern: Shopping and American Architecture, 1925–1956. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
2005 Reinventing Main Street: From Mall to Townscape Mall. Journal of Urban Design 10(2):151-170. (subscription access)
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Midtown Plaza Shopping Center Rochester New York image from Victor Gruen Papers University of Wyoming. American Heritage Center