Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Sad, Lonely Death Of The American Mall

The American Mall is an iconic symbol of...well, it's up to your particular viewpoint of the world. It could be the culmination of the consolidation of marketplace efficiency, expansive land use, and consumer-driven convenience; or, it can represent the blight of creativity and mass-market banality in postwar America.

In either case, the mall has been important for generations of kids in this country...and it may all be coming to an end.

Well, not anytime soon, really. While a new enclosed mall hasn't been built in this country since about 2006 or so, there's still plenty of thriving malls in varying climates throughout the nation. Trends and demographics change over time, of course, but the death of the mall has probably been proclaimed too soon. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is up to shoppers, I suppose.

Personally, there's something charming about having an effective self-sustaining consumer complex like an indoor mall. I know "charming" is an odd word to use to describe what is easily the epitome of crass consumerism, but I'll stick to it. If you're not going on a Saturday night or during that four-week hellstorm in December, malls can actually be a remarkably calming place to be.

Still, I'm willing to admit that a lot of this is probably rank nostalgia. If someone told me today they were going to bulldoze a few dozen farms, suck all the water and electricity from neighboring towns, and screw up local traffic so there can be one place where people can go to buy overpriced ill-fitting clothes for teenagers and sell stale pretzels and out-of-date CDs, I'd think you were crazy.

Still, every mall has a certain allure to it.

The Food Court: Oh, sweet Food Court! Sure, you're overpriced, the hygienic qualities are a little suspect, and the meal sizes would barely satisfy a bird, but it's like a brilliant festival of tastes and colors in one awkwardly-shaped semicircle. If you want a slice of Sbarro's pizza and your spouse wants creepy Mexican and your kids want chicken squingets and everybody wants Mr. Pibb and Dippin Dots, you can do that all within a twenty-yard radius. It's like if we took Vladimir Lenin in a time machine to see the greatness of capitalism in a modern-day food court, he'd go back and hitch up in Switzerland and say "Screw all that communist revolution nonsense, I'm gotta have some Panda Express for lunch."

The Arcade: Ah, how the mighty have fallen! Whether it be the classy Aladdin's Castle or the dime-store equivalent called "Arcade," you just can't have as much fun at the mall playing video games now. Sure, back in the 1980s, home systems were ruled by such landmark games as Make That Dot Hit The Other Dot, Stack The Blocky Lines Up, and Beep Boop. Video game aficionados had to hoof it to an actual arcade to play a game that actually made sense and didn't look like someone filling out a sheet of graph paper with a mechanical pencil. As home systems become advanced enough to no longer require profit in 25-cent increments, arcades just gave up and turned into ticket-producing monstrosities like Coin Shuffler Deluxe, Ski Ball Renegade, and Let's Pretend The Claw Game Isn't Rigged. It's the circle of life.

The Trendy Clothing Store That Makes You Feel Old: Malls are easy magnets for teenagers: they can roam freely without parental supervision, they get to hang out with their friends, and they're in a safe, climate-controlled building. (There's also the added bonus of making elderly shopkeepers incredibly nervous, but that's a different discussion for a different day.) So of course a lot of stores cater to this demographic, namely stores like Hot Topic that sell trendy clothes at outrageous prices. And by "trendy" I mean "you are only going to wear that if you are on your way, or just coming back from, auditioning for a part in a high school production of Moulin Rouge, which you're not ever going to do in any circumstances." Which, of course, makes us feel old.

The Anchor Store Everyone Knows Is Gonna Be Dead Soon: Anchor stores are the huge retail outlets  placed in key points in the mall. They're usually big-name stores with lots of recognition and often deal with upscale clothing or big-ticket purchases like appliances or electronics. Of course, with the big box stores effectively stealing a lot of these customers away, these huge stores (with expensive inventories and massive square footage to pay for) make them pretty huge gambles anymore. Store after store has failed, and the loss of an anchor store can often signify the end of a mall's longevity--these places pay huge rents, after all. But as the retail landscape changes, people are going to be more and more comfortable buying lawn mowers sight unseen on Amazon and not have to deal with commission-begging sales associates.

The Novelty Gag Store You're Embarrassed To Go Into: Oh, who are we kidding. We're talking about Spencer's, and you're still going in to look around. You're going to pretend to look at the T-shirts, but you're going to end up "accidentally" looking at the "adult" toys, and then you're going to realize there's like a 12 year old girl standing next to you, and then you're gonna leave and go home and reflect on your life.

The Vacant Storefront: Lots of pressure is forcing many smaller stores out, too, as well as the anchors. Some of these are long-established retailers; some of these are small, independent shops. In any case, when rent can't be paid, you either have to go out of business or uproot your store and move it to a weird mini-mall above a payday loan outfit, or perhaps opposite the shady pizza place that always smells like armpits.
The Weird Social Service That Moved Into A Vacant Storefront: Of course, real estate holders don't want to see vacant storefronts; not only is that rent not being paid, but it devalues a shopper's experience from showing up in the first place. The quickest tenants to sign up, of course, are non-profits and government agencies; whether it be a driver's license place, an army recruitment office, or a fake technical school, it at least fills in the storefront with something other than a big lease sign in an empty window that effectively says "I'm sorry you chose to shop here."

That Weird Exit: We all know it exists. All malls have several different exits. Some are next to movie theaters or by the big fountain or next to the store we all know is going out of business soon*. But there's always one exit that's not next to anything. There aren't any stores down that particular arm of the mall; at best, there's a small, unmarked door that goes to the mall manager's office. There aren't any lights outside; they've long stopped working. Foot traffic is negligible. And it's the polar opposite of where the main entrance from the highway to the entire complex is. On the one hand, it means you'll get a prime parking spot and not have to fight other shoppers; on the other hand, there's a pretty good chance you're going to be assaulted. Although, to be fair, given how malls are going right now, you might just be accosted by the mall manager begging you to spend some money there.

For my tastes, as long as he's offering a cheesesteak sandwich and a Cinnabon, I'm in.


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