Are Malls in Trouble Part I

Weeks ago, I read an article in the Washington Post written by Sarah Halzack about the recent challenges of American malls. After reading the article, a number of thoughts piqued my interest. This includes many large retailers are struggling, local shopping options, environmental concerns, distribution centers, and Amazon’s dominance in this space. This is the first article of 2 regarding ‘Are Malls in Trouble?’


During the period of Great Recession and years beyond (2008-2012), I noticed an incremental amount of stores closing in suburban Chicago. My initial reaction was with close to 10% unemployment, there just wasn’t the demand for as many retail stores — assuming it was primarily related to the Great Recession.

z4However, after reading this article ‘The troubles at the American mall are coming to a boil’, I realized there’s another big contributor to the loss of retail space. Said differently, the amount of vacant stores today has less to do with the unemployment rate and more to do with the change in our economy and how we consume. Reading about how the loss of retail space has been quantified has provided a new perspective when seeing the closing of stores. For example, as the article stated, Payless is going to close 400 stores, Sears and Macy’s are struggling – with empty 28 million square feet of retail space.


I remember purchasing shoes many years ago where the merchant actually owned the store and knew all the products they sold (typically a man). They could tell you how to clean your shoes, polish them, help them last longer. They knew their suppliers and how and where the shoes were made and if they didn’t do shoe repair themselves, they could recommend a shoe repairman down the street.

Many younger consumers have no idea how retail was more personal and local and obviously that model is not coming back. I could dwell on it and say it’s sad there are fewer locally run businesses, however, I could also make a plug to shop “local” whenever you can.

Anyway, if you’re older than 50 or 55, picture in your mind you’re in DSW or Famous Footwear 20 minutes before closing and you bring a pair of light-brown leather shoes to the counter and ask a few questions: What polish would you recommend for this material? How often would you weatherproof these shoes? Do the shoe supports make a difference? These employees might look at you as if you are an alien with 3 feet and you’re missing socks.

z3Of course many consumers are looking for the best deals or wide selection so they shop at DSW, but their MO it’s all about selection and price. Service is a secondary focus. Those who only know of shoe stores in strip malls don’t equate this retail space with service. Their focus is not to take care of your shoes, but rather entice you to come back shopping by sending you a coupon or birthday wish. It’s a code for “continuous consumerism” and there’s always more where that came from.

As internet providers become more adept and knowing your size and style preference, guess who will suffer? Some of those same large chain store stores that originally took market share from local shoe retailers. What goes around comes around…


To build many of these malls and other retails stores near these malls, developers have paved wooded areas or prairies (paradise to some) and added malls and parking lots; for the convenience of those suburbanites who solely travel by car and frequent those homogenous malls. As some of the retailers are closing stores or consolidating locations, you’ll see more vacant stores near and within them.

z2Driving out of Chicagoland, we drive by a new large Amazon distribution center and some passengers are in awe of what a impressive facility they built in Kenosha County, conveniently placed right off I-94 and minutes from the Illinois state line. At first glance, it’s impressive but once you connect the dots, you realize many of these empty stores in suburbia over the last 5 years are strongly correlated to the success of Amazon. More distribution centers will be built and one will see more delivery traffic in your neighborhood as internet shopping continues to gobble up marketshare from the brick and mortar retailers.

One more thing, what happens to those vacant brick and mortar stores? Is the developer responsible to either fill the store or get it demolished after a certain period of time? Could or should local communities hold retailers responsible to add back a little bit of paradise if the space remains vacant?

If they remain vacant and remain an eye sore, especially on the suburban landscape, and we’re paving more paradise by those new distribution centers being built, a little bit of paradise has been permanently paved. Progress?