What's in Store for the Suburban Mall?

Mega-shopping centers once flowed like Starbucks in America. Today, many are being mourned on sites like Deadmalls.com. Lee Eisenberg looks at how we lost our mall hegemony to the rest of the world.

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In George Romero’s late-Seventies blood curdling classic, Dawn of the Dead, the four lead characters— a TV-station helicopter pilot, the requisite girlfriend, and two SWAT team deserters— decide they’d rather be anywhere but in Philadelphia. And for good reason. An attack of flesh-eating ex-dead people has invaded what is decidedly no longer the City of Brotherly Love, consuming (entrails and all) as much of the local populace as can be crammed into their skeletal stomachs. (All coming back to you now?) Having no time to dawdle, the quartet climbs aboard the WGON news chopper, heads west across the state where they eventually seek sanctuary in an enclosed suburban shopping mall.

Suburban shopping mall? A zombie-free zone? Romero’s delicious irony was not lost on one B-movie cineaste who described the mall the frightened heroes encountered: “mindless zombies mindlessly shuffling past mindless store window displays while mindless Muzak plays on loudspeakers, leaving us in the audience to ask, ‘How is this any different from what these people did when they were alive?’”

You can count on two hands the number of new enclosed malls constructed over the past three years. At the moment there are exactly zero on the domestic drawing board.

Romero elected to film the harrowing mall scenes in what was in fact a real live mall, prototypical of 1960s mall-ness, when the concept was still fresh and exciting. Should you for some bizarre reason be curious to visit this mall where Romero’s zombies shopped till they chomped, just fill up the tank, load up the kids, and head out to Monroeville, PA, a suburb fifteen miles west of Pittsburgh. Here you’ll discover that the Monroeville Mall is alive and assuredly zombie-free, aside from the scraggly teens hanging haunting the food court or the seniors doing their early a.m. walking thing. But, retail being retail, things have changed at the Monroeville Mall. When it opened four decades ago, the mall was anchored on each flank by two now-defunct department stores, Horne’s (d.1994) and Gimbels (d.1986). In their places there’s now a Macy’s and a Boscov’s, a regional chain. The mall’s third original anchor, JC Penney, continues to sit stolidly at the center of the complex, though anyone newly returned from the dead will find herself befogged by the gazillion Penney private labels that have displaced her once favorite clothing brands. As for the remainder of the Monroeville Mall, it’s pretty much what you’d find at nearly every other of the 1,300 enclosed suburban malls that as yet litter the suburban landscape: a what-else-is-new directory of specialty retailers ranging from Abercrombie to Zales, with Brookstone, Nine West, PacSun, and Victoria’s Secret, among dozens of others, cheek-by-jowl on levels one and two.

That the Monroeville Mall endured a long succession of up and down business cycles, not to mention the fraying of suburbia itself, is no small accomplishment. The past decade has nightmarish for mall developers, who today would cheer the arrival of a few busloads of hungry zombies so long as the creatures had brought along unexpired credit cards. What went wrong here? Well, many developers simply shot themselves in the foot or, in this case, their own square-feet. They knocked out mall after mall with a cookie cutter, placing them in too-close proximity and thus setting off a wave of cannibalization. Then, with the dawning of the Age of Cheap, malls buckled under the assault of big box discounters and warehouse clubs with everyday low prices and a dizzying breadth of merchandise. Then, retailers pounced on the outlet mall model, whereby shoppers drive an hour or two to harvest what they think are deeply discounted designer overstocks but what they get are items produced specifically to be sold in outlet malls— with a healthy profit margin built in. Finally, a sexy new retailing concept emerged to pave over what patches of scruffy real estate remained in our once verdant suburbs: so-called “town” or “lifestyle” centers with their cobblestone streets and ersatz gas lamps and so many brightly colored market umbrellas you’d think you’d gone to zombie heaven and were shopping in Marseilles, not Monroeville.

The net net: today you can count on two hands the number of new enclosed malls constructed over the past three years. At the moment there are exactly zero on the domestic drawing board. Of the enclosed suburban malls that remain, at least one of four is said to be teetering on the brink.

Now, the reason I know a little something about the enclosed mall’s death spiral is because I’ve spent the last several years researching a book about the American way of buying. Dutifully, I’ve stalked the corridors of malls both healthy and sick, gobbled down one too many penne-a-la-vodka specials at “bistros” or “grilles” in those spiffy town centers, shot the breeze with merchants and customers about the past, present, and future direction of American consumption. Yet I would never have gotten wind of George Romero’s romp through the Monroeville Mall had it not for the chance discovery of a rather curious website, one with an interface only a zombie could love: Deadmalls.com.

I happened upon Deadmalls one day when I just browsing around, looking for existential details on the fate of malls I’d frequented when I was in high school in Philadelphia. While Deadmalls.com carries no mention of those concrete dinosaurs, the site does offer scores of eulogies that trace the demise of once beloved, now stone cold, malls from Auburn, Maine, to San Bernardino. Many of these posts come courtesy of melancholic, everyday shoppers who were moved to share personal remembrances of their mall days past. (“I discovered this mall while my late uncle was an involuntary guest of the state.... and that facility is located across the highway.”) Others are the work of a gaggle of unaffiliated hobbyists – dead-mall freaks -- who for one reason or another have cultivated an interest in, and not infrequently an obsession for, keeping tabs on American retailing at the most local level.

Another helpful feature on the site is a glossary of terms that delineate the various stages of mall decrepitude. For instance, to say that a mall is “dead” does not necessarily mean that it’s shuttered or abandoned. It’s just suffering from “a high vacancy rate, low consumer traffic level, or is dated or deteriorating….” To say that a mall is in “redevelopment” is akin to saying that a movie project is in “turnaround”— i.e. undergoing a “change [of] architecture, layout, decor, or other component…. Sometimes redevelopment can involve a switch from retail usage to office or educational usage of a building.” And to say that a mall has attained “greyfields” status means that its “annual sales per square foot is less than $150, or one-third the rate of sales at a successful mall.” “Greyfields” is a play on “brownfields,” a term coined years ago to describe hopelessly aging industrial sites such as manufacturing plants or railway yards. (I have no doubt there are websites devoted to those, too.)

Curious to know more about why anyone in the world would bother to maintain a vigilant death watch on the enclosed suburban shopping mall, I tracked down one of the founders of Deadmalls.com, a personable chap named Brian Florence, who’s in his early thirties, works for an insurance company, and lives in Glens Falls, New York. I’d assumed that Florence would turn out to be either 1) a raging anti-consumerist who takes something approaching necrophilia joy in documenting the demise of once flourishing suburban malls; or 2) the sort of hobbyist described above -- one who, strictly for fun, follows the fate of retail centers with the avidity of a fantasy sports geek who tracks players all the way down to the bush leagues. Florence is more the latter than the former. Tech savvy (he also maintains a site called Sodafinder.com [link: www.sodafinder.com] dedicated to ferreting out and selling rare or defunct bottled soda), Florence launched Deadmalls.com as a favor to a buddy whose idea of a compelling weekend is to drive hundreds of miles to take the pulse of an endangered mall. The purpose wasn’t to gloat or to grieve, Florence assured me. For dead mall buffs, an expired or slowly dying mall carries a certain scent they feel compelled to try to preserve, one that has nothing to do with the sticky-sweet smell of a Cinnabon store or that ineffable fragrance that wafts out of an Auntie Anne’s Pretzels outpost. As Florence explained it, dead-mall mania has to do with how, for kids of his own time and place, the ‘70s and ‘80s, the suburban mall stands frozen as a place of wonder and discovery, glittering, vast, exciting, filled with wondrous sensory delights. A magic kingdom, if you will, but within driving distance of your cul-de-sac.

Romance aside, the takeaway here is that America has lost its hegemony, mall-wise. The biggest, brashest, boldest malls on the planet are sprouting in countries where “the money is young,” as Paco Underhill, the prominent retail consultant, told me. One-time wonders such as Mall of America, King of Prussia Mall, the South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Del Amo Fashion Center in L.A., Xanadu in New Jersey, well, they have all the grandeur of strip malls when stacked against dozens of immense new enclosed malls in China, Malaysia, the Philippines, the Gulf states, Turkey, and other places where malls are replete with replicas of the Arc de Triomphe, smooth-running trams that whisk shoppers across up to 7,000,000 square feet of leasable space, and adjoin playing fields, hotels, office buildings and, well, here’s the point:

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We’re now a Third Mall country. That’s the bad news.

But the good news is that zombies now have a great many cooler places to shop.

Lee Eisenberg, who wrote the bestselling The Number: A Completely Different Way to Think About the Rest of Your Life, is the author of a new book about consumer behavior to be published this fall: Shoptimism: A Journey Through the Brave Heart and Restless Mind of the American Consumer. He is blogging on the subject at ShoptimismBook.com.