When I was 14 or 15 years old, compelled by the force of a younger sister, I would be dragged to the mall. After a brief stop at Gamestop’s predecessors Babbages or Electronic Boutique, where I would pine after a Neo Geo, I would promptly become a grump as I waited another three hours for our interminable shopping trip to end.
I hated the mall. Even when all of my friends were going to the mall because it was the cool (read: only) thing to do in south central Ohio, I was a not happy about being there. In reality, I was much happier stomping through the woods, catching crawdads and hunting for fossils than I was standing in a food court. One mall near me, the Dayton Mall had both a Babbages AND an arcade on the second floor, so my countdown to grump was about an hour instead of 30 minutes, but the results were the same either way.
As an adult, my disdain for the mall continued. Eventually when we had kids, going to the mall became a once a year thing, so we could get Santa pictures, which, is actually not terrible. The fact that my kids love the Lego store (and they have a brick wall) makes it a bit more endurable. Plus, unlike as a kid, I get to decide when we leave.
But the Death of the Mall isn’t just me doing a little grave dancing on a place and institution that marked my difference from my peers. The Death of the Mall is caused by the same factors that have given rise to the Golden Age of Gear. Aside from the jobs lost, there is really nothing I can think of that is BAD about the mall dying. No more fields and wild places paved over, no more traffic jams, no more stores filled with junk that is precisely not what you want or need, and the ability for companies to produce things that people actually want. In many ways, this is the revenge of the Gear Geek.
Malls were full of stores that were designed to sell the most stuff to the most people. Very rarely, if ever, were they selling enthusiast grade-stuff to people (aside from the aforementioned Neo Geo). Even the few knife stores that included in Malls were generally more kitchen knives with a few cheaper Spydercos. In order to maximize profits, malls appealed to the lowest common denominator in people. The result was stores with stuff that was never inspired, never well-made, and never interesting. It was box after box after box of the same old crap with different labels where the labels and not materials or quality dictated price.
But when the Internet came about, we finally had a way of buying things that allowed those that demanded more to get what they needed regardless of where they lived. Sure if you were fortunate enough to live near the great Plaza Cutlery, you could score a Sebenza in person, but if not, prior to the Internet, you were hard pressed to make it happen. The Internet allowed small pockets of people here and there to collect their purchasing power and give rise to places like Triple Aught Design. Those of use that did not want yet another pair of jeans from GAPAmericanEagleBananaRepublic could finally find what we wanted. And when we did need to venture back into the fastest moving part of the stream of American commerce, mainstream products, Amazon is there with a greater selection, cheaper prices, and quick delivery. I can also shop in my underwear at midnight.
Lots of people have written about the Death of the Mall, but they miss one point—Amazon certainly hastened the real estate beasts’ death, but the rise of specialty stores like Blade HQ, CW Pencil, and Urban EDC Supply is made possible only by the gathering power of the Internet. And so while a lot of purchases at the mall are now made on Amazon, a smaller but significant number of purchases are made at specialty stores that while having physical locations can only survive thanks to online retail. The Internet allows us to buy what we REALLY wanted in a way that malls never did.
Think about going to the mall to buy a fall jacket—a softshell hoodie. It used to be you had one or two choices—a Columbia or something from Eddie Bauer. And neither was all that inspiring. The designs were bland, the features snooze-worthy, and the materials ho-hum. But now, thanks to the gathering power of the Internet, you can find amazing stuff at online specialty stores. What’s more is the fact that traditional retailers like LL Bean have been pushed to make better stuff by this wave of specialty stores. The Pathfinder Hoodie is crammed with materials and features first found on jackets made by specialty makers that exist because of the Internet.
The forces that have conspired to kill the mall have also conspired to give rise to the Golden Age of Gear. Thanks to the existence of niche interest specialty stores, made possible by the Internet, people no longer have to settle for the garbage that they were forced to buy at a mall. We get what we want, made with the materials we are looking for, whenever we want it.
RIP Malls. I hated you.
BONUS: Saving a Mall
If I were the owner of a mall I would do two things to reverse the contagion. I would gut the large anchor stores, which are failing anyway, and make them experience places—indoor kart racing or ropes courses. And then I would fill the smaller stores with niche interest places. Have a store front that sells high end headphones, one that sells EDC gear, one that sells pens. Make it cheap enough for these Internet-only places have a storefront, with an understanding that most of their business will still be over the web, but give them a chance to have a brick and mortar place. It will open up certain brands to them, give them prestige, and be a way of attracting people for you. Heck, it might even make sense to let all of the small stores use the one empty anchor store as a collective warehouse for all of their Internet business. If you have these niche interest stores people will drive greater distances to get to your mall. It would also help to get rid of all the chain restaurants. Find local folks, change a food court into a brew pub. And make sure to avoid those places that are basically selling folks microwaved food (have you noticed how many of these chanin restaurants now have food in grocery store freezers?). I don’t know if it would work, but at least it would get people’s attention as a opposed to being another place that is slowly but inexorably shuttering all of its stores.