The suburban shopping mall as we know it is dying.
Department stores are boarding up, classic mall staples like J. Crew and Abercrombie & Fitch are on death’s door, and Americans are increasingly turning to Amazon for their shopping sprees.
But in some cases, a new form of commercial center is taking shape to fill these massive buildings. Desperate to plug empty retail holes, mall owners are turning to less traditional businesses like gyms, grocery stores, and high-end restaurants to keep foot traffic flowing.
Some have even transformed parts of the buildings into office parks, medical facilities, or homes.
The new trend raises the question: What even is a mall anymore?
According to CBL & Associates, modern malls need to be “vibrant town centers,” replete with lifestyle and entertainment options beyond simple retail. The property group announced a rebrand of its own 113 spaces to this effect on Thursday.
The idea is to preserve the function that malls once served as a suburban social institution for a generation that may not even know what a “mall rat” is.
The fanfare around the change in strategy is also an attempt to counter the narrative that malls themselves are on the verge of extinction.
You could be forgiven for thinking they are. Struggling department stores, the anchors around which malls are organized, have been pulling out of smaller markets in growing numbers for years. In their absence, some spaces have become so worthless that mortgage borrowers simply send the keys back and leave in a practice known as “jingle mail,” according to the . The glut of abandoned malls has even spawned an eerie form of ruin porn online.
It’s no wonder then that debt-strapped owners have been forced to think outside the box.
America’s oldest shopping mall in Providence, Rhode Island, for instance, was recently reinvented as a quirky housing complex. Former boutique stores have been renovated into 48 micro-apartments with a coffee shop, restaurant, and hair salon on the premises. Other malls have carved out similar residential spaces.
Many malls have begun to spurn the label altogether in favor of more general designations like “lifestyle centers.” In some places, former fashion outlets or perfume shops have become doctor’s offices or small business workspaces among grocery stores, yoga studios, and what remains of the usual clothing stores.
A mall in Houston has turned an old JC Penny’s into a technical school and a former Mervyn’s into a sprawling movie theater. Across town, a now-defunct rival mall tried housing a Native American museum, a model train clubhouse, a medical training school, and a children’s dance theater at various points before ultimately collapsing this year, according to Texas Monthly.
These hodepodges of condos, offices, lifestyle offerings, and small-scale retail have become the new blueprint for many malls looking for a makeover. They aim to evoke the feel of a small self-contained community—all under the same roof.
Not all malls are on the decline, though. Many high-end shopping complexes in densely populated metro areas continue to thrive thanks to a steady stream of foot traffic.
But even these malls have started to gear towards “experiential” retail—businesses that rely more on the experience they provide than what they sell. In some cases, upscale stores are experimenting with amenities like bars and lounges with charging stations or curated experiences with hands-on demonstrations and personal stylists.
In one of America’s ritziest malls in Orange County, California, a VIP shopping suite offers complimentary champagne and other refreshments, a zen room, and concierges and style assistants to wait on shoppers. Another mall in Manhasset, New York offers private rooms with wardrobe consultants and tailors.
The thinking behind these sorts of pushes isn’t hard to grasp: In a world where online shopping is coming to dominate, malls are doing everything in their power to make the actual act of buying things secondary to why customers visit. Even if it means changing the very definition of what they are.