The Scents and Sense of the Season

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\"\"T’was a day around Christmas and all through the mall, the smell of Cinnabon and The Body Shop and perfume-spritzing sales girls has been replaced…with the smell of death. Another not-so-great, average American mall was dying.

We all know about the over-stored, over-malled shopping landscape, a victim of developer over-exuberance and the onslaught of online. But to see it in person in what was once the pride of and joy of another suburban neighborhood is something else entirely. The geographic specifics of this particular mall location are irrelevant. Suffice it to say, it meets all the criteria of hundreds of other nearly identical shopping centers from one end of the country to the other.

A name that is some combination of direction – north, south, etc. – with a topographical and/or political designation – lake, town, hills, county.
The prerequisite layout of three to four big anchors, once cornerstones and now increasingly dead weight.

A double decker floor plan with center crossroads, festive food court and the appropriate number of escalators, staircases and planters.

If the bones were still in place it was clear this mall was losing body parts at an alarming rate. One of the four anchors was empty and with the other three occupied by Sears, Penney and Macy’s – as I’d be willing to bet the majority of malls in America still are – it’s only a matter of time before more of the anchors set sail. By rough count, at least a full third of the stores in this mall are empty…and most appear to have been so for some time. Even the usual holiday pop-ups were nowhere to be found. More troubling, the number of stores occupied by the ubiquitous national chains that have been the core of malls for three generations is frighteningly low. No Gap, no Abercrombie, no American Eagle, no Ann Taylor, no Express, no Foot Locker, much less an Apple or Sephora or J.Crew. What’s left were Kay Jewelers, Victoria’s Secret, Champs and maybe fewer than a handful of other well-known names. In their place were one-shot local clothing stores, a few ersatz craft shops, some costume jewelry kiosks and a novelty store or two. Even the food court was less than half occupied. In fact, it’s the first such mall I’ve seen in decades with nary a Sbarro, Panda Express or national burger chain.

To say this mall was on life support is to imply that someone is actively managing the care of this facility. This, then, is the reality of what will become of the suburban B and C malls that have been the backbone of American retailing. Call it hospice retailing if you will: it is a mall waiting to die. And what will become of it? Are there enough yoga schools, workout facilities, doc-in-a-box health clinics and community centers to give them all another purpose? Probably not.

We know the A malls will endure. And we know some of these second-tier centers will rebound as the next generation begins their inevitable suburban migration to better schools, soccer fields and backyards. But not this one. If this is not its last holiday, it certainly is among its final ones. It’s only a matter of who will be the last one there to turn out the twinkling Christmas lights.

Warren Shoulberg is a journalist who has specialized in the retailing industry for most of his career. He had a tough time finding the holiday spirit at this very sad mall.

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