Goodbye to the Mall

Remember mall studies the part of the cultural studies movement in academia? Like so many things studied in the academy, it turns out that the Owl of Minerva spread her wings at dusk yet again.

This week’s Economist carries a lengthy story on the end of the indoor shopping mall. The Economist reflects on Victor Gruen’s role in the creation of the mall and suggests that malls are dead, offering the rather surprising statistic that there will be not one new indoor mall constructed in the country before 2009 at the earliest (in comparison to some 1,104 malls in existence in 2006, a year that saw the construction of only one mall…for the source, see the Mercer Business article below). Instead, it’s open-air urban lifestyle centers like the Grove that rule the new retail landscape.

The Economist draws the rather surprising conclusion that the mall has failed because of social issues, that the integration of the suburbs and the emergence of the mall as a hang-out place killed it. I’m not so sure about the former. Los Angeles’s Beverly Center seems to be thriving even though it attracts a racially diverse crowd and the Grove is far from lilly-white itself (what mall in Los Angeles could be?).

Another article on the future of shopping from Mercer Business suggests that shoppers no longer have the time to spend that the shopping mall required. In that article, Mercer suggests that shoppers are going for open-air power centers in which they can park directly in front of the store they want—for example, a Home Depot, Old Navy, or Wal-Mart—and then head in on a targeted mission. Once they’re lured in, however, customers take advantage of the center by visiting the other stores and restaurants. Still, this is on their own terms. Gruen’s shopping malls forced customers past stores and hoped to draw them in. With leisure time radically reduced since the 1950s, the shopping mall was doomed.

But how long will the power center last? As anyone driving around today will tell you, the problem with all of these places is parking and getting there. Moreover, the new omni-consumer who uses technology for shopping advice relies on networking technology to shop. Maybe cell phones will come to support this, but I wonder if we aren’t rapidly moving toward a two-tier system of shopping: commodity shopping that is handled online where consumers can search for the best product at the best price using online guides and specialty shopping for items that require highly-trained sales staff (Carlos, my incredible salesman at Barney’s in Los Angeles, for example)?

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malcolm gladwell on victor gruen, malls, and assett depreciation after 1954

In the "Terrazzo Jungle," a New Yorker article from 2004, Malcolm Gladwell recounts the history of the shopping mall and the role of Victor Gruen, the Viennese crusader for the shopping mall as a new form of urbanity in the 1950s United States. Gladwell points to a little known change in the 1954 Internal Revenue Code that allowed developers to write off their investments much more quickly, stimulating them to make ever bigger shopping centers and, in so doing, undoing America's downtown retail districts.

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