ROGER KOSKELA | Are Shopping Malls ‘Endangered'?

By Roger Koskela

Those who have studied the evolution of the shopping mall say that its antecedents go back to ancient agoras and medieval European piazzas. It appears that people have had the itch to shop conveniently, and collectively, for a very long time.

Here in America we've had an approximate 50-year love affair with the allurement of the mall, to the point where some centers now include almost as much entertainment and recreational enticements as they do merchandise.

But all of that may be changing. According to many recent reports, shopping malls are ailing; some are converting portions of space into alternative uses, while others are just shutting their doors and morphing into economic graveyards.

Like a roll of remembrance, the Web site "" chronicles the remains of mortally wounded centers, accompanied by photos and eulogies submitted by former patrons.

How did all this come about, and where is it all heading?

When I was a kid in Chicago around the end of World War II, to my recollection, there was nothing that resembled the mall of today. It is true that larger retailers often congregated around key city intersections both downtown and out amidst the variety of ethnic neighborhoods.

But there was no protection from the hot sun, gusty winds, driving rain or blizzards in getting to and from the stores, nor was there food at hand, unless it was a "dime store" like Woolworth's or SS Kresge's (the predecessor of Kmart).

So-called "shopping centers," or clusters of stores, have been around since the late 1920s, but it wasn't until 1956 that Victor Gruen built the first fully enclosed, climate-controlled mall in Edina, Minnesota, near Minneapolis, say shopping center historians.

Perhaps it's only appropriate that America's largest mall is also located there. The Mall of America, in addition to its 500-plus retail stores and 20,000 parking spots, boasts a seven-acre theme park with 24 rides, an aquarium, an 18-hole miniature golf course and even a wedding chapel.

Some 40 million visitors arrive annually at the site, said to be more than the number who visit Disneyworld, the Grand Canyon and Graceland combined. With all its tantalizing attractions, Mall of America is said to be holding its own against the declining trend that is occurring in many areas of the country.

Our recent economic crises have apparently created a perfect storm of sorts whose ramifications are being felt by the majority of the estimated 1,500-plus larger U.S. malls, and maybe even more by the smaller ones, many of which are old and in need of upgrading.

Late last week, for instance, major retail chains reported another monthly drop in sales figures for March, an unfortunate continuing trend. Luxury chains were hit the hardest, with department stores not far behind. Often these are anchor stores, and their ripple effects are being felt.

Interestingly, the nation's largest retailer, Wal-Mart, usually free-standing and not particularly associated with malls, was a rare exception, showing a small increase in last month's sales.

Nearby Kitsap Mall in Silverdale reports that it, too, is "holding its own." Property manager Yvonne Tomascak told me that though they have lost several tenants due to business closings or bankruptcies (e.g., Mervyns, Kits Camera), they are also seeing some new stores move in to replace them (Kohl's). Additionally, anchor tenant JCPenney is presently undergoing a major renovation, which adds confidence to the forward outlook.

Tomascak observed that the relative buoyancy of Kitsap Mall is somewhat reflective of the degree to which the greater Seattle area has been affected by the economic downturn. "We feel it," she admits, "but we're taking steps to adjust to it."

Elsewhere in the country, many malls are less confident. One source indicates that more than 400 of them have closed in the past two years. There is a "10-pin" effect that is said to occur when anchor tenants are forced to close their doors. Smaller adjacent shops that rely on the larger stores for walk-in traffic are then adversely affected, and they, too, often shut down.

The worst-case scenario is when a whole community is devastated by a mall closure, such as occurred in Utica, New York around Christmas of 2007. Holiday displays were left in place during the sudden evacuation, and over time a leaky roof turned things into a "mildew stew." Such happenings can turn a dead mall site into a wasteland, overrun by weeds, human scavengers and stray animals.

On the other hand, some malls are gaining some life with fresh attractions for their unused capacity, such as water parks, wave machines or other fascinations. But will this be enough to stem the adverse tide? Are malls really endangered?

Some say the real problem is that we as consumers have changed, but malls have not followed suit. The bad economy, Internet shopping, the buying shift to discount stores and the almost two-decade mall decline have taken their toll.

Not one enclosed mall has opened in the last two years, according to a recent report on CBS' "Early Show." The same report suggested that our love affair with the environmentally controlled shopping center may be over.

Instead, on the horizon could possibly be what are called "lifestyle centers," that try to mimic the old "town square" feeling by including playgrounds, parks and even apartments or condos above stores. The times they are a-changing.

Questions or comments? Contact Roger Koskela at

© 2009 Kitsap Sun. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

  • Discuss
  • Print

Comments » 2

djbrianflorence writes:

When someone wakes up one day and sees their retirement has been cut in half, expenses will be curtailed to just the necessities. It is no wonder Wal-Mart is not experiencing the same downturn as novelty and specialty stores, because Wal-Mart sells cheap basic goods. They are also the largest grocery store chain in the United States. Malls, for the most part, rely on the novelty and specialty stores to give variety; the same variety that attracts the most types of shoppers -- the same shoppers that woke up and saw their nest egg shrink and will not be spending what's left. Some malls have attracted chains like Target as anchors, which in some cases can bring in additional foot traffic.

Shopping began in our downtowns, and spread to the suburbs in the form of the mall. Now that the mall seems to be a failing concept, many mall owners, the ones that care about their mall anyway, are struggling to find ways to meet the "needs" of their customers. One of these is the lifestyle center. It basically is a streetscape layout of stores with pretty landscaping stroon between small parking lots. It gives the illusion of a downtown experience. The problem with this is that it is a faux downtown. The mall owners are converting enclosed "private" space into open "private" space. It is the perception of a centralized public space that can be utilized by society, but it is carefully controlled to manipulate those occupying it to hone you into a store to spend money. At any time you can be thrown out and charged with trespassing. It's just a mall with a bigger invisible roof.

They contain mostly the same specialty and novelty stores as malls, which regardless of the form you find them in, will still not provoke the business they need to thrive, or even float.

We are in tough times, and until the economy balances itself upright, more chains will fail, and as a result more malls will sink. And, that means more business for my website, :-)

beatleluvr writes:

DONT SHOP AT WALLMART!! please, and thank you for your support.

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

The comment forums that follow stories on Kitsap Sun are offered as a home for community dialogue. To maintain the forums as a relevant, worthwhile function in our mission, we ask all users become familiar with our published guidelines for commenting. Among other guidelines, you agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy, and we ask that commentors help us monitor threads by flagging inappropriate comments. Those who repeatedly violate our guidelines or otherwise abuse the privilege will be banned.

Click here to read our comment guidelines. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.