The Death Of The American Shopping Mall And Ghosts Of Retail Past

Photo courtesy of Brett Levin via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic. 

There was a time not too long ago when there was nothing more American than the kitschy splendor of a bustling shopping mall. Now, many are closing, leaving an eerie spattering of ghost malls across the country.

The abandonment of these behemoth structures tells a story of former grandiosity, left to gather dust and decay due to decreased usefulness and a suffering economy.

Closed mall in Akron, Ohio. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Eckhart via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic.
Closed mall in Akron, Ohio. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Eckhart via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic.

From treasured to trashed

The relatively short-lived glory days of the American shopping mall began in the 1950s, when Austrian architect and socialist Victor Gruen designed the first fully enclosed shopping center in Minnesota, which opened in 1956.

Gruen’s masterpiece quickly inspired more malls, which cropped up around the nation to great success for decades, reaching a point in the 1990s when roughly 140 were built per year, the BBC says.

Former Sears in Trotwood, Ohio. Courtesy of Nicholas Eckhart via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic.

But it was also in the ‘90s that the image of the mall changed from wholesome, family-oriented, and high class to more of a hangout spot for pierced youth of the Hot Topic variety — which perhaps was the first sign of an imminent decline.

Teenager reputation aside, it was the tanked economy that resulted in 2007 being the first year in a half-century in which no malls at all were built. On the contrary, they started to shut down, and amazingly no enclosed malls have been built in the country since.

Former Department store. Courtesy of Nicholas Eckhart via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic.

Slow and steadily, this decline continues. Today, it’s projected that by 2022, 10-15 percent of the U.S.’ 1,000 malls will be closed, with mostly lower-end malls being hit by closures, as higher-end malls’ business actually improves.

There’s even a website called dedicated to documenting dead and dying malls all over the country.

Tile remains of a dead mall. Courtesy of julianmeade via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic.

Impact of digital alternatives

Obviously, an important contribution to the downward spiral many physical retail stores are facing is the availability and convenience online shopping offers to customers.

Technology is driving an online shopping revolution: in the next 5 years, it’s expected that e-commerce will officially overtake brick-and-mortar stores, reaching $327 billion in sales by 2016.

According to the Census Bureau, in 2013 e-commerce sales were estimated at $263.3 billion, an increase of 16.9 percent from 2012.

And as we’ve written about before (see Curiousmatic’s shopping guide), not only do one in five smartphone users “showroom,” often turning to the ever-growing Amazon for purchases, but new digital gifting startups and crypto-currencies make it easier than ever for users to shop with their fingers rather than their feet.

What’s next for malls?

Remains of mall in Akron, Ohio. Courtesy of Nicholas Eckhart via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic.

Though many closed malls remain dusty relics of the past, retaining the sometimes tawdry architecture of their decade along with a new layer of haunt, not all shopping centers are doomed to resemble apocalyptic film settings.

Some ghost malls have been repurposed as community colleges, churches, and office buildings, the New Yorker says. Other malls might be saved by downgrading in size to match a slowing demand, or converting into residency.

Demolished wall in VA. Courtesy of julianmeade via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic.
But though some also envision museums, theaters, casinos, or bowling alleys in the spaces, many will inevitably remain too damaged by age for renovation. 

Regardless, retailers are upping their online game and reconceptualizing the American shopping experience to meet modern preferences. If stuffy mall-spaces don’t seem to fit into the future of consumption, that’s an important fact to realize for retailers hoping to move forward and innovate.

Abandoned mall in Arkansas. Courtesy of Clinton Steeds via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic.

Until that time, dead and dying malls if nothing else make for great photography.

Originally published on 5/13/2014. 

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