Painful Truth: Shopping malls might be short lived

The mall is dying. Sure, it looks healthy enough, especially around the holidays, but make no mistake, it’s days are numbered.

The mall is a new thing. You can find various kinds of proto-malls – indoor shopping with multiple merchants – going back to the Elizabethan era. But the idea of retail sales as a separate category is only a little older than that. From medieval fairs to permanent shops to the department store to the modern mall has been a journey of just a few hundred years.

The history of shopping has been essentially a history of disruption through the last hundred years.

We’ve gone from general stores and almost medieval single-item shops to department stores, and from there to big box stores and discount retailers. The undisputed juggernaut of these is Walmart, which is both department store and discount retailer, which can stand alone or slot into a mall itself.

The genius of the mall was to take all kinds of retailers – the old department stores, the modern big box, the discount stores, plus specialty stores, and to glue everything together with a food court and a couple of quarter-operated rides for the toddlers. Warm in cold climates, cool in hot climates, and never rained out. As long as there was enough parking and a surrounding support system of suburbanites with cars, a mall couldn’t lose.

We’ve seen a number of big and medium-sized retailers pull out of the Canadian market in recent years. For some, I’m sure it’s the recent recession. For others, it’s consolidation. For Target, it appears to have been hubris.

Hovering over all of these closed stores, like a dark cloud, is Amazon. What Walmart is to brick and mortar, Amazon is to online shopping. And then some. Their strategy is not unlike that of the Borg, from Star Trek. They will assimilate your retail experience.

The mall sells clothes? So will Amazon. Pet food? Sure. DVDs? Electronics? Furniture? Fresh groceries? Yes, increasingly.

Does it cost more to get some of these things from Amazon? Well, yeah. But there are costs to everything. When you go to a mall, the cost is spending time at the mall.

I’m not a shopper by nature. The only stores I ever liked going to were bookstores. Now there are bookstores online. I can go there at midnight. I can browse titles in my pyjamas, from my couch. No screaming toddlers. No long lines. No finding a parking spot.  

 Fine for books, right, but what about clothing? Surely that’s immune to e-commerce. Well, there are online retailers working on that, too. High end outlets will ship you all kinds of clothes, and their websites have tutorials on how to get your measurements exact. On the low end, if you buy tube socks in plastic bags at the store, what difference does ordering online make? The high and low end retailers are steadily eating their way towards the middle.

Eventually, this is going to kill off some individual retailers, whether big box or specialty or discount. And there will be nothing in the physical world to replace the stores, because those shoppers are gone. That’s when the malls are going to be in real trouble.

Some people love to shop. The mall, for them, is a social place. There are bargain hunters who love checking for discounts. But just as Walmart killed off plenty of department stores, Amazon is gunning for the shopping mall. And the online sellers have lots of ammo.

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