The Atlantic Cities, one of my favorite urban news sources, published an article recently predicting the end of the American mall. At first blush, I can understand and relate to the title and its premise. Retail, enclosed or otherwise, online or in-person, has had a time during the last 5-8 years of nationwide recession, regional depression, and shaky consumer confidence in the future of household finances.
Most of the article’s data is related to so-called ‘big box’ retailers that historically had little or no online presence (e.g. Borders, Circuit City, Blockbuster), and largely didn’t up until their demise. They all relied on foot traffic and physical presence for sales, which ultimately doomed them in a time where online shopping is as comfortable and simple as calling in a take-out order. But – what mall do you know of that had a Borders or a Best Buy? All the malls I have frequented in my life were always anchored by Macy’s and JCPenney, with the odd movie theater.
I understand the ramifications for future brick-mortar retail in general, as presented by Jeff Jordan. Many products and services with price- or deal-driven sales are a natural fit for online, because the purchase experience is a new convenience and time savings previously unrealized – an errand skipped in the endless list of errands on Saturday. You can compare prices quickly, pitting retailers against each other in real time. Ordering household supplies, electronics, and the like is for most consumers, a rote, best-deal process, not an experience. It’s no wonder Amazon and Netflix have prospered.
The point I think that is missed in the article is that for a significant proportion of general commerce, in-person shopping at retail facilities, in whatever format – mall or urban center – is a leisurely, social experience many crave, and one that cannot be easily replicated virtually. Sure, you can shop for handbags online, but the special, fuzzy excitement you feel in person isn’t there.
Especially for luxury, higher-end shopping, there is a custom of browsing, trying on for size, interacting with sales associates, choosing color, and debating purchases over coffee or a meal. It’s no wonder many malls have more seamlessly meshed shopping with eating and drinking, to create a multi-faceted experience, and are moving away from food courts – a concept soon to go the way of the dinosaurs.
I realize these trends describe what many would say is ‘the 1%.’ While more mid-level malls may be in jeopardy, destinations like Copley Place and Northpark Center are unlikely to die off anytime soon.
Still, many who aren’t in the 1%, and who wouldn’t self-identify as such, enjoy that kind of integrated, leisurely experience too. Driving through Tampa’s International Plaza parking lot on a weekend will support my theory – nary an empty spot in sight. It is undoubtedly the most expensive retail destination in the region, but it includes a spectrum, from Forever 21 to Gucci.
Along with the advantage of shopping as social and customary to many consumers, malls provide something that urban shopping streets (like Rodeo Drive and Madison Avenue) sometimes cannot – a mix of high and low…cheap and chic. A friend in LA told me that his mother and her friends typically travel to South Coast Plaza instead of Rodeo Drive, because they can visit Hermès and H&M.
Now, given the constraints of budget, or time, online still presents a close second for all types of goods – whether it’s Nordstrom.com, Vuitton.com, or Gap.com. Many retailers approached online cautiously at first, but quickly realized its potential to boost sales overall, and drive traffic in-store as well. Many now offer free shipping and free returns, making the differences between buying online vs. in-person few – the trying on part, and the instant gratification.
Maybe a better headline for the Atlantic Cities article would be, “The Death of Big Box Retail.”
Ultimately, I believe brick-and-mortar will live on, on a smaller, smarter scale. Jeff Jordan mentioned recent start-ups aimed squarely at online initially (Bonobos, Warby Parker), followed slowly and unconventionally by in-person showrooms or kiosks instead of full-fledged boutiques.
I can see that sort of retail development, a hybrid of old and new, becoming the standard. One concept I have a hard time letting go of is the department store, which for all its big-boxiness, provides access to myriad products and services in a relatively small footprint. I could bounce around Saks Fifth Avenue and visit some of my favorite brands and designers without walking more than 100 feet.
Maybe the future puts more emphasis on anchors and less emphasis on individual stores. Or maybe only high-end malls will survive, putting less emotional purchases online exclusively. Only time, and our economy’s appetite for one, the other, or both, will tell.