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Posted: March 01, 2012

Rundles wrap-up: The mauling of American retail

Jeff Rundles

When I was a kid and my mother took us shopping, we went downtown or to a few neighborhood commercial areas, and that was it. When I was 10 or 11 someone opened up this newfangled thing called Eastland Mall in our bustling factory town of Flint.

It was something to behold: acres of parking lots and then a covered facility where the shops faced a hallway, a leisurely shopping experience away from the brutal winter and the stifling summer.

It was exciting because it was new. Little did I know then what the mall would become in America. There’s even a mall – in Minnesota – called The Mall of America, and it is nearly the size of its namesake.

The question today is whether there is a future for the mall in America, and the answer appears to be not much of one. No new enclosed mall has been built in the country since 2006. Many of the existing ones have been demolished, and if you look at the kind of shopping meccas they are building now, the prospects for any resurgence are slim.

I say good riddance, but then I’m a guy, so going to the mall is not exactly high on my priority list; pretty much right after colonoscopy. Having said that, I have spent a great deal of time in malls, or so my research would indicate. Remember Cinderella City and its Cinder Alley? How about Southglenn, or University Hills, or Buckingham Square, or Lakeside Mall, or Westminster Mall, or Villa Italia, or Westland Center, or Northglenn Mall, or Beau Monde Mall, or Tamarac Square, or Crossroads in Boulder (which was the first enclosed mall in Colorado, opened in 1963)? I spent some time in each, and all are gone and replaced by a mixture of Town Center and streetscape outdoor emporiums, or strip malls and supercenters and superstores, or simply vacant spaces.

When you think about it, the mall business must be a tough one. A few, like the Cherry Creek Shopping Center, opened in 1990, thrive; indeed, Cherry Creek is said to be among the most successful malls of all time. Then there’s Park Meadows, where the real activity seems to be in the surrounding open-air strip malls and the nearby IKEA, and Southwest Plaza, not exactly bustling inside, and FlatIron Crossing, which appears to be active but, again, is surrounded by active open-air strip malls.

So why the shift? Why are malls – the former darlings of retail and favorites of city planners as massive sales tax generators – a thing of the past for the most part?

There are several reasons really, but one over-arching one. First, while there are still many stores, there are fewer and fewer store operators what with consolidation in the retail world. Also, public tastes have shifted, somewhat driven by the economy, and the retail sector that is thriving appears to be discounters and superstores, like Wal-Mart and Target, and they have never been mall stalwarts. And most people – including me – seem to prefer the city-center type of development, where it looks like an old-fashioned small-town downtown, with shops, dining and – importantly – housing and business offices in the mix. Think Belmar in Lakewood, which replaced Villa Italia.

To me the real key is the non-classic-retail stuff, like restaurants, taverns, coffee houses, bowling alleys, movie theaters, open-air concerts and events. Why is this important? Because these are all things you simply cannot purchase on the Internet.

Even if I do actually make the purchase at a brick-and-mortar store, I have done the "shopping" on the Internet and on my smartphone. And if I do buy it online, most often I don’t pay the sales tax, which is of course driving city and state planners nuts.

But I simply can’t enjoy a cocktail on my laptop or phone. That should be a sobering thought for America’s mall operators.

Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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