Painful Truth: Malls will transform, or die

Payless Shoes has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the United States.

This is, according to a recent Washington Post article, the tip of the iceberg. Big chains are laying off workers, shutting stores, selling inventory at fire-sale prices.

There’s a technical industry term for this: “overstored.” It means pretty much what it sounds like. There are too many stores, too many malls, too many outlets and big boxes and power centres. A bubble of speculative retail construction in the U.S. seems to be bursting.

It’s not so bad in Canada, where we didn’t have quite the same buildup. A recent National Post article put per-capita square footage of shopping centres in Canada at 16.5 feet, compared to 23.6 feet in the U.S.

Like a lot of people, I’ve been wondering for years if the mall as we know it would succumb to the pressure of online retailing.

Amazon.com has eaten away at some big chunks of the brick-and-mortar marketplace. Founder Jeff Bezos famously started the site based around retailing books because they had a number of advantages over other types of goods. Unlike food, books don’t spoil. Unlike clothes, you don’t need to try them on for size. Unlike a car or a bike, you don’t need a test drive.

From the foundation of a non-perishable slab of wood pulp and ink, Amazon has moved into all those other areas, though. Electronics are a natural for online retailing, as is jewelry. And then, once some kinks are worked out, specialty clothing retailers have started to invade the online space.

Online shopping is definitely putting pressure on traditional stores, but it remains to be seen if there will ever be a complete replacement.

The fact that the U.S. is overstored may have little or nothing to do with online retailing. It may simply be yet another speculative bubble, one that took a long time to reveal itself.

The big question is, what replaces all those empty stores that are being boarded up right now?

New retailers? Will specialty stores manage to take up the space of a Target, a Sears, a Payless? In some cases, but not likely in all.

Housing? There are plenty of people looking for new housing, particularly in densely populated areas with lots of services, bus routes, and restaurants. Some malls will shrink their commercial footprint and build condos straight up through the shells of dead retailers.

With goods becoming cheaper thanks to automation, services may take over some of the mall spaces. Large gyms are becoming more common in malls, as are child play areas. Arcades have made tentative returns. Restaurants and coffee shops, beauty spas and physical therapy offices, paintball ranges and drone racing courses and circus arts schools all need space. And why not put them where the people already come every day?

The mall may die, killed off in 10 or 20 years by Amazon and its competitors. Or it may transform, keeping some shops, some restaurants, and adding housing and a variety of services we can barely imagine now. If I was betting, that’s where I’d put my money.