In Final Days: The American Mall Experience

BY JOHN CARTER

Becoming a more well-known concept in the 60s and establishing its iconography in the 80s the American shopping mall has been a staple of the shopping experience of everyday Americans for decades, especially prior to the dawn of major online delivery services. However, over the years, American malls have started to see their flames quietly go out. Like a child huffing against the flames of their birthday candles, Coronavirus and the ever rising Amazon are the great wind snuffing out the American mall.

Over the past few years stores have been closing in malls across central and western Kansas. The JCPenney in Salina closed, Gordmans in Hays has shut its doors, and the Hutchinson mall has declined . These aren’t the only store closings. According to USA Today, of the nation’s 1793 enclosed shopping malls, nearly 500 are at risk due to their location being poor or  due to their dependence. 

It seems that stores will continue to close as coronavirus has made it hard for people to go shopping at these locations. While some malls are reopening with COVID related precautions, store closings across the state and country beg the question if the damage has already been done?

When the Salina JCPenney closed  on June 12, the Hays location seemed destined to be next. However, the location in Big Creek Crossing remains open. JCPenney has been an integral component to American malls for decades and to see its decline is simply a sign of the apparent permanence of the way the world is changing. 

As of June 2020 there are about 145 JCPenney stores closing across the nation according to CBS. Certainly with many more franchises (including Gamestop, Chuck E. Cheese, and Toys R Us) closing down locations in the last few years, malls might not be able to last much longer. 

As for Gamestop, the franchise alone will be losing hundreds of stores. According to a September 2020 CNN Business article, GameStop said between 400 and 450 stores globally will close this year, which is more than the 320 stores GameStop originally said in March.

(Hays Imperial Garden Location)

Salina resident and former employee at Salina’s Central Mall Imperial Garden, Zandra Weis, said malls may be dying out because consumers have other ways of getting their goods and services. 

“Malls are for sure dying out as a way to shop or grab a bite to eat because there’s more conviennent ways of doing that through online shipping and fast food delivery systems,” Weis said. “But they still act as a way for friends to group up after school and hang out, or older adults to go window shopping while also working out before the crowd has a chance to appear. They’re like public libraries in that sense, which is a shame because that’s the exact reason they’re dying out as much as they appear to be.”

Weis said during her time working at Salina’s Central Mall, she noticed the amount of people she saw at the mall decreased, which caused staffing needs to lessen at her work, causing her to be moved to another Imperial Garden location in Salina. 

“We went from maybe needing a third person on Saturday to not needing them at all,” Weis said. “After my managers moved me to our main store location instead of the one at the mall I noticed holes in the schedule where there would only be 1 person working because it got that slow there.”

The future for shopping malls may be through building reallocation. City Journal reports Simon Property Group Inc. has been exploring with Amazon the possibility of turning some of the property owner’s anchor department stores into Amazon distribution hubs and new types of communities with already nearly 60 such locations being repurposed as communities such as multifamily housing.

The era of the American mall seems to be fading, but its impact on the United States shopping experience has not only been one of  importance but one that set the foundation for future innovation to grow.  While the current status quo may wipe away the current function of American malls, given circumstances of store closure and the COVID-19 pandemic, the truth remains that that very same foundation will evolve to become a home to new endeavors through the repurposing of American malls – whatever the next step may be for them.

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