The story that has already been told about the American shopping mall is one of great commercial success up until the advent of the internet, when the whole industry crashed and burned. As online shopping rose, so goes the usual narrative, the fortunes of places of public commerce fell precipitously. But, as it turns out, it's more complicated than just the idea that more people are shopping from home.
As the New York Times examined in depth in 'The Economics (and Nostalgia) of Dead Malls,' while online commerce sites like Amazon may have taken a bite out of the retail industry, a great many other factors are involved. A major one is the growth of income inequality in the United States. This is why luxury shopping malls are still doing well while malls designed for middle- and low-income areas are failing with high vacancy rates.
Those malls not built around higher-end markets also would typically have anchor stores like Macy's and J.C. Penny's. But why go to the mall for those stores when those of us not in the higher income brackets could just go to Target or Wal-Mart, which are entire shopping malls unto themselves?
Again, online shopping is a factor in the changing landscape of American commerce, but e-commerce is still less than 10 percent of all retail sales. Another factor in the crash of the mall that, part and parcel of the American home construction boom, was a concomitant boom in the construction of retail spaces, many of which had no chance of survival in the long term. Some malls never needed to be built, and their deaths are just part of a long and painful market correction.
In fact, according to the same New York Times article, more than 80 percent of mall in the United States are healthy. Not that a 20 percent shakeup in any industry is a good thing, but it provides room for necessary change.
We are becoming a world where places of public commerce are, if not a thing of the past, then certainly unrecognizable compared to what they once were. The world keeps on changing. And I have to wonder what will be the next cultural cornerstone to be transformed will be. My guess is driving. Pretty soon that daily chore will be another thing left to our nostalgia, living on in a form much different than it ever was before.