The indoor mall is a phenomenon of 1950s "car culture." Once more people moved from cities and developed suburban areas, the downtown shopping districts were not as viable. Also, in areas that have cold and snowy winters, it was not always practical or comfortable to walk from store to store down a proverbial "Main Street." Thus, the indoor, climate-controlled mall was born.
The shopping centers grew in popularity and ignited a 50-year boom in commercial construction. There were nearly 1,500 malls built between the years of 1956 and 2005.
Blue-collar neighborhoods have faced many economic issues in the past few decades. Many residents turned to discount giants like Walmart for clothing and home goods. Teenagers took over malls, and they started to spiral downward.
Anchor stores like Sears and JC Penney's started to lose business nearly overnight. Many of these anchors closed multiple locations and malls struggled to fill their positions with discount retailers like TJ Maxx. Eventually these indoor centers fell into such a decline that there was no coming back.
Due to advances in technology, many of the habits possessed by Americans during the heyday of the indoor mall have changed entirely.
For one thing, teenagers, who were a staple of mall culture throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, have found different ways to "hang out" with friends and get dates. Retail culture has also evolved. The same Internet that has changed the habits of teens has changed the way many adults shop. After all, in 2013, 6% of all fourth quarter retail earnings were made online. That is double the amount that it was in the same time bracket in 2006. Shopping centers depended on the holiday shopping season to earn the majority of the annual profits, and now they can't even count on that.
The Expert's Outlook
Barely 1,000 indoor shopping plazas still stand in the United States, and according to commercial construction analysts, not one has been built since 2006.
Real estate experts feel that the problem will accelerate, and they predict that as many as 15% of American indoor plazas will fail or be converted into non-retail space within the next decade. This is actually an increase from just two years ago, when the same experts felt only 10% would fail or be converted.
Many former indoor shopping plazas have either been torn down or drastically re-purposed. Many of these relics to 1980s commercial construction have marble, brass, artificial lights, and fountains, and need dramatic overhauls before they can be reconditioned as offices, medical structures, and community colleges.
Many commercial construction businesses actually specialize in the conversion of former retail spaces into buildings needed for other purposes. After all, the most important rule of real estate is finding prime locations, and many of these plazas were located right off the highway and in the heart of the now densely-populated first ring of suburbs.
Malls were a longtime staple of shopping in the United States, and for many of us, they were more than just a mid-twentieth century wonder of commercial construction. However, the prime real estate that they sit on can be used for positive change in the community, and that will always be a good thing.