The Rise and Fall of American Mall Culture

Belz Factory Outlet Mall

Series: 21st Century Americana

From the birth of malls in the 1950s, the pop-culture iconography of malls in the 80s, to the predicted death of malls today, mall culture has been a roller coaster over the past 70 years.

In 2007, I was eleven years old and a self-proclaimed hater of shopping. But, like any pre-teen of my day, I never passed up an opportunity to spend a day with friends at our local mall. With Frappuccinos in hand and a strict deadline of when one of our parents would pick us up, we took the mall by storm. Claire’s, Limited Too, Bath and Body Works, Wet Seal, and various other stores were all on our must-see list. We spent whatever pocket cash our parents had lent us on things we didn’t need; nail polish that would dry up before ever using it, clothes we would never end up wearing, and cheap earrings (despite not being allowed to get our ears pierced yet). 

My friends and I weren’t the first generation of pre-teens/teens to spend a day at the mall this way, but it seems as though we might have been the last. Malls have seen a sharp decline in popularity over the last few years, with half of the nation’s malls abandoned or soon shutting down. I don’t mourn the death of the consumerist meccas malls have become, but their history in our culture is something that won’t soon be forgotten. 

Malls, as we know them today, were first built back in the 1950s. The rise in suburbs and the passing of the Federal-Aid Highway Act made way for shopping districts outside of the typical urban centers. The original idea for the mall was envisioned years prior by architect Victor Gruen. Gruen intended the mall to be a convivial place where people could shop, eat, and socialize. He based their design on close-knit European shopping districts like you could find in Paris or Vienna. This was never fully achieved. Perhaps the inherent consumerism ingrained in American culture tainted these centers that were supposed to focus on human connection. 

I am not the first to cover the death of the American mall, but most tend to gravitate to one explanation: technology. The death of mall culture has coincided with the rise of technology, but using it as scapegoat undermines the true issue at hand. Malls aren’t dying because technology is flourishing, but rather because the original target audience for malls is dying as well.

Back in the 1950s, the American middle class was in its heyday. Nuclear families, sprawling suburban homes, and livable wages all painted the Norman Rockwell picture of mid-century America. For the first time, disposable income was something most American families had, and shopping for non-necessities was no longer just a reality for the rich. Malls thrived off of this, as did department stores, and the automobile industry. The decline of malls in America shadows the decline of the middle class. 

In 2008, the Great Recession hit America’s middle-class hard. Disposable incomes vanished, with any extra income now filling in blanks left by lay-offs and the rising costs of housing and basic necessities. The middle class still hasn’t recovered from this, and so industries that relied on them for their consumer base are suffering. 

“The decline of malls in America shadows the decline of the middle class.”

Although nearly half of America’s malls have shut down in recent years, there are still various thriving malls. I live in Los Angeles, home to many busy, bustling, and ever-growing malls. I worked at a retail store in one such mall for nearly a year, and there was never a quiet day. In a time where online shopping has grown to be the norm, how are some malls still thriving? The mall I worked at was definitely not aimed at the middle class. It flaunts retailers such as Gucci, Tiffany & Co., Prada, and others. Seated less than a mile from the city limits of Beverly Hills, this mall was built to service those who still have disposable income in this economy: the rich. 

The mall I shopped at with my friends when I was younger wasn’t a mall for the wealthy. It’s most expensive store was Sears, and the rest was packed with fast-fashion retailers like Forever 21, Charlotte Russe, and American Eagle. The teens I saw while working at the mall in Los Angeles are not the same demographic I came from. These teens buy $50 earrings and $30 perfumes, dishing out wrinkled $100 bills for their purchases. 

If technology,  and the subsequent decline of human interaction, are to blame for the death of malls, why are malls aimed at wealthy consumers still thriving? Especially when their incomes would lend well to the current online shopping experience. 

Many sources blame Amazon for the death of in-person retail. While Amazon has a laundry list of things it needs to be blamed for, I don’t believe this is one of them. Amazon is a substitute for some things, but not all. I have never met a person that does their clothes shopping on Amazon. I shop on Amazon to save money since most items are a fraction of the price compared to relatively “cheap” big-box stores like Walmart or Target. Most middle-class people I know aren’t ditching in-person shopping for online shopping, but are rather ditching shopping altogether. 

I go shopping much less now than I did as an eleven-year-old, despite the fact I now have a steady income. But I only make minimum wage, and even though I live in Los Angeles where the minimum wage is higher than the national average, it is still not enough to have a disposable income. My paychecks go to rent, utility bills, transportation, and groceries, and that’s pretty much it. I can’t afford to spend Saturdays roaming a mall with an overpriced Starbucks drink in hand, browsing for useless things to buy. I spend my Saturdays working a second job.

And I’m not the only one. For our retail economy to thrive as it did in the past, the American people need to thrive as well. Malls were targeted at the middle class of suburbia, but that fantasy is disappearing. The last generation of mallrats doesn’t have the income to ensure the same childhood to the next. The decline of malls is not a problem within itself, but rather a symptom of a much larger issue.

Further reading:

An Ode to Shopping Malls 
The New York Times - 2017

When Malls Saved the Suburbs From Despair
The Atlantic - 2018

A Dying Breed: The American Shopping Mall
CBS News - 2014

Teens And Mall Culture: The Fading Love Affair?
NPR - 2014

How the Mall, Once a Pop-Culture Touchstone, Fell out of Fashion
LA Times - 2017

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