The Twilight of (a) Indoor Mall

Mike Nagel has a hilariously over-reaching article called The Twilight of the Indoor Mall.  You might be forgiven when reading that title for thinking that:

  1. The author’s evidence for this twilight included more than three visits to a single mall, in an area with dozens of competing malls.
  2. The author’s evidence for this twilight would not lean heavily on the hair-styles of people he met at the mall.
  3. Pressure from online retail would be mentioned at all.

Such is not to be.

But that said, despite the shortcomings of the article, we’ve all seen malls dying this way, and I’d like to explore that a little, even if it is not in fact the death of the indoor mall as a concept.

I think that indoor malls are probably uniquely vulnerable to the death-spiral of losing an anchor store, for a few reasons:

  • They’re really very anchor-store based.  Set up as pathways between one or more anchor stores, hitting a cul-de-sac in an indoor mall is notably jarring — you’re funneled straight into an intrusively dead storefront.  If you lose an anchor, that branch of the mall just lacks any kind of flow.  And replacing an anchor store, even if possible, is obviously not going to be a fast experience.
  • More so than outdoor malls/lifestyle centers, indoor malls are of an era.  There’s just more decoration to cover — your floor tiling, ceiling, lighting, etc.  Once that ages out of fashion, the entire mall looks bad or old-fashioned instantly and throughout.  Redoing the entire mall interior is a herculean task that is as likely to kill your customer base as rejuvenate it.  An outdoor mall has more timeless elements (sidewalks and streets are less of an era than tile floors) and storefronts can be remodeled without heavily disrupting shopping.
  • For whatever reason, nobody goes to a restaurant in an indoor mall, whereas they may in an outdoor mall.  This allows you to have some of the draw of an outdoor mall be a restaurant and thus anchor stores are less critical to bring people into the shopping area.

A question is, even if an indoor mall is more prone to eventually dying than an outdoor mall, is that necessarily a bad thing?  Consider a mall a durable good, like a tractor, rather than an institution.  If you buy a tractor for $50,000 and it eventually breaks down past repair, that’s fine as long as it did enough work in its lifespan.  There’s no prima facia reason why malls have to be different — though in my experience the big difference is that the corpse of a mall sits around for decades, rather than being shuffled off to a junkyard.  And that’s perhaps the final reason why an outdoor mall works better: you could imagine that if an outdoor mall is seeing reduced traffic, that you could carve off pieces of it and sell them off/remodel them/repurpose them much more easily than you can the single monolithic building of the indoor mall.

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