TOPICS > Economy > Making Sen$e

Once temples of American commerce, indoor malls lose shoppers to e-stores

November 28, 2014 at 6:40 PM EDT
From retail to e-tail, is Cyber Monday the new Black Friday? Indoor malls have been in decline ever since consumers discovered online shopping, and many retail spaces are either closing or being repurposed as shopping habits evolve. Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports on the fate of America’s malls from Akron, Ohio.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Much of the attention on black Friday focuses on just how much people will spend. But one story that’s also important for retailers and local economies is a big shift in where people are shopping.

Economics correspondent Paul Solman looks at how those changing habits are affecting the traditional mall.

It’s part of his ongoing reporting Making Sense of financial news.

PAUL SOLMAN: The remains of rolling acres in Akron, Ohio, poster child for a recent phenomenon in America, the dead mall. This one went dark in 2008, fixtures auctioned off, others swiped or vandalized, nature now reclaiming more than 50 acres that once hosted Macy’s, Victoria’s Secret, the Parisian, 140 stores at its peak.

University of Akron economist Amanda Weinstein:

AMANDA WEINSTEIN, University of Akron: Even just a few years ago, you would see LeBron James as a teenager, he would be hanging out here. And now we see teenagers are breaking in and homeless people occasionally have been living in there, and so it’s really changed a lot.

PAUL SOLMAN: Talk about understatement. Rolling Acres opened in 1975, swelled to 1.3 million square feet of retail. It was once the place to shop for miles around. But neighborhood income began to stall, as in so much of blue-collar America; teen gangs crept in. Rolling Acres was on a roll, in the wrong direction.

AMANDA WEINSTEIN: We started seeing more discount stores. The J.C. Penney turned to a discount outlet store, so trying to get stores with the lowest prices possible.

PAUL SOLMAN: But why spend money on gas to schlep to the mall when you can now get the lowest prices possible online? Is this then the future for the American indoor mall, just decades after it was hailed as a retail revolution?

NARRATOR: And now let’s see how shopping can be fun.

PAUL SOLMAN: In the 1950s, car culture spawned the suburbs and launched a half-century mall boom: 1,500 built from 1956 to 2005.

NARRATOR: These young adults shopping with the same determination that led them to the suburbs in the first place are the goingest part of a nation on wheels.

PAUL SOLMAN: But barely 1,000 indoor malls are left today, not a single new one built since 2006.

LEN SCHLESINGER, Harvard Business School: Malls have been declining for years and will continue to decline.

PAUL SOLMAN: The Harvard Business School’s Len Schlesinger.

You mean malls like Rolling Acres in Akron, which is just…

LEN SCHLESINGER: No, no, no. I’m talking about the high-quality malls that have been know, the — what we call the A malls. The B malls and C malls, the ones that have never drawn high-end customer bases or high-end traffic, they’re already in the process of being repurposed in all sorts of ways.

They’re becoming bowling alleys.


LEN SCHLESINGER: Oh, yes, storage facilities, et cetera. And we will continue to see the repurposing of that real estate.

PAUL SOLMAN: That’s because 15 percent of malls are expected to fail or be converted into non-retail space in the next decade. Why the across-the-alphabet decline? Well, online shopping has doubled in the last seven years. Tastes and habits have changed.

ACTOR: What’s the matter? You look depressed.

ACTOR: I hate working the theater. All the action’s on the other side of the mall.

PAUL SOLMAN: For example, no longer are malls teeming with teens.

ACTRESS: Thanks.

What can I do for you?

ACTOR: Can I have your phone number so I can ask you out sometime?

PAUL SOLMAN: Today, teenagers play out their angst elsewhere or at home, on their computers, while the parents are shopping on theirs.

So many malls. so little time. Thus, even the Atrium Mall in upscale Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, is now a construction site.

LARRY GROSSMAN, ADD Inc.: It had marble and brass and lots of lights and mirrors, and so we had to find a way to repurpose it, but really mask the image that was sort of 1980s.

PAUL SOLMAN: Let’s never forget the three rules of real estate: location, location and location. So developers are de-malling Atrium.

Architect Larry Grossman.

LARRY GROSSMAN: This is in fact the third time I have done this, because malls have tended to fail.

In this case, it’s a total redo, where we’re looking for office uses, medical uses and retail mixed within a single structure.

PAUL SOLMAN: Just down the road, a once-foundering middle-market mall has gone upscale. The old Chestnut Hill Shopping Center is now The Street, an alfresco faux town center with tony restaurants and shops, including the Polka Dog Bakery, featuring natural foods for Fido.

And a former Macy’s is now SuperLux, a high-end cinema with table service.


BRIAN SCIERA, WS Development: Cheers.

PAUL SOLMAN: Brian Sciera of W.S. Development says these so-called lifestyle centers had better be unique.

BRIAN SCIERA: If we want to survive today, we want to carve out a point of difference in the marketplace where we become something special, you have to be out of the commodity business and into the experience business.

PAUL SOLMAN: Starting at $20 a seat, for instance, cinema style and comfort, including chocolate martinis. That’s because, says, Len Schlesinger:

LEN SCHLESINGER: The fundamental question becomes one of, what’s going to draw traffic to a shopping experience? And it’s no longer the stores. Now it’s movies, gyms, restaurants and entertainment. And I think what the developers have done here is actually the new normal.

PAUL SOLMAN: No guarantee.

LEN SCHLESINGER: Never a guarantee in retail. Never a guarantee. You’re always adapting.

PAUL SOLMAN: But Chestnut Hill, with its evermore well-heeled residents, is a much better mall bet than working-class Akron, Ohio, where the only use of Rolling Acres these days is a storage facility tucked away in one small wing of the complex.

In the parking lot, the mall tells the history of the area, says urban economist Weinstein.

AMANDA WEINSTEIN: Akron really started booming with the tire industry. And the tire industry is really what propelled it forward and it had tremendous growth from that industry. The tires here have been a little bit repurposed here and teenagers now using them for a little racetrack or an obstacle course.

PAUL SOLMAN: But nobody is using the indoor mall itself, a post-apocalyptic vision of shopping mall America.

This is Paul Solman, reporting from Rolling Acres in Akron, Ohio.