Will Retail Prevail? The Decline of America’s Shopping Giants

American Icons, Featured Article
on December 7, 2015

retail sales decline


Ten years ago, the mall was to shopping as Google is to information: well-organized, a little overwhelming with its size and breadth of inventory, but, most of all, a staple of convenience and pleasure, with everything available at one’s fingertips. Take one small jump forward, though, and many of these once-packed and luminescent apexes of consumerism—or “dead malls”—look like nothing more than nondescript, hollowed-out bunkers from The Walking Dead.

retail decline


Nowadays, the twentieth century allure shopping malls and their giant retailers once flaunted has been forfeited in favor of the instant gratification of the technological era. As of 2012, only 1,513 of America’s 2,000 largest shopping malls still survived, and that number is expected to decrease 15 percent or more throughout the next decade. From 2010 to 2013, in-store traffic during November and December, the biggest shopping months of the year, had dropped by more than half from 35 to 17.3 billion visits. In November 2014, that number decreased by another 11.4 percent, and it certainly hasn’t stopped there, with retail sales at department stores this year dropping by two percent. This might not seem like a drastic downfall, but in reality it’s the second-worst sales performance on an unadjusted basis following that of gas stations due to a drop in gas prices.

Needless to say, it’s not looking pretty for our friendly neighborhood shopping centers.

retail decline


Brick and mortar establishments have, in large part, the World Wide Web to thank for their steady losses. From Birchbox to Amazon, to the thousands of emails that pad our accounts advertising the newest daily deals across myriad websites, it seems the future of consumerism is looking exclusively to the Internet.

This year’s Black Friday alone saw a 14.3 percent leap in online sales as opposed to the $1.2 billion drop at retail stores. For many shoppers, the convenient, efficient and no-fuss method of letting the internet aggregate a perfectly good selection of what they’re looking for and then having it delivered right to the door is enough of a reason to never put on shoes to shop again. With express and overnight delivery options cushioning that convenience, saving an afternoon’s worth of traversing from store to store with a couple simple clicks of a mouse has never looked better. Time is money, after all.

However, shoppers shouldn’t turn in their membership cards just yet—recent research has shown that many shoppers, like their mid-20th century post-war ancestors, enjoy the multifaceted experience a mall offers. A survey conducted in 2013 by Glimcher Realty Trust as part of its RetailMonitor series interviewed 3,000 adults, 80 percent of whom said they’d still be willing to drive as long as 30 minutes to get to a mall on a monthly basis. Despite living in a time-constrained society, the reason for this boils largely down to a sense of escapism—being able to engage in a little retail therapy with friends, while also seeing a movie, getting dinner or having a glass of wine.

retail decline


Similarly, The Washington Post released a list of five up-and-coming retail trends to watch in 2014, which still apply to the industry a year later. The common denominator in each of them is the “experience” factor of shopping centers that include attractions like gyms, hair salons, and other service-oriented anchors—even a 175-foot tall Ferris wheel, in one case near Washington D.C.

While the glamorized, ever-popular department store experience our grandparents once enjoyed might be sliding down a path toward the obsolete, one thing has stayed the same—people still appreciate a little out-of-house retail therapy, which, no matter how limitless it may seem, is something cyberspace still can’t compute.