Perhaps you’ve noticed already: Between Black Friday and Christmas Eve, the mall is not the same. Even getting there is not the same.
While holiday shoppers were out in force this year, the experience they had shopping is the perfect storm of some trends that have been going for some time, said the director of the Master of Science in Urban Design program in the Georgia Tech School of Architecture, Ellen Dunham-Jones.
The number of malls has been declining for almost 20 years, she said, mostly because we overbought retail and, lost middle-class jobs in many regions of the country. E-tailing has forced the remaining malls to evolve, Dunham-Jones said.
“What’s new, now, is that the department stores are failing.”
Recently named to Planetizen’s list of “100 Most Influential Urbanists of All Time,” Dunham-Jones is an expert in urban and suburban redevelopment. She is also one of the nation’s foremost authorities on what's happening to “dead malls” declining office parks, and other aging suburban property types.
Anchor stores are going, going, gone
“For the last decade, loss of an anchor meant a mall was quickly going downhill,” she said. “Lately though, mall owners are saying, ‘Without that anchor, I can bring in a gym, a grocery store or other experiences you can’t get online.’”
Office space is the most common re-use of excess mall area, Dunham-Jones said.
“Ford moved 1800 employees into the former Lord & Taylor’s of a Detroit mall," she said. “Rumor has it that Google Glass took over an entire dead mall in Mountain View.”
While no one likes to see businesses fail, Dunham-Jones sees dead malls as opportunities to address 21st century challenges the suburbs were never designed for. Her research documents the 263 mall retrofits that are helping their communities reduce auto-dependence, and increase public health, social capital, affordability, and water and energy sustainability.
In 54 cases, malls have done this by becoming the “downtown” their suburb never had, she said.
“They’ve demolished most of the mall, but re-inhabited the anchors with new uses. They put in a grid of streets, put retail at the ground level, and apartments above,” she said.
Traffic is an unexpected nightmare
With the change in malls comes an inevitable change in traffic, said Catherine Ross, the director of the Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development (CQGRD) and the Harry West Professor of City and Regional Planning at the School of City & Regional Planning.
“During holiday shopping season, traffic is to be expected,” Ross said. “Friday, Saturday, and Sunday is always going to be tough. Last weekend I had to circle the mall to get a parking space. It was horrible!”
But there’s a noticeable difference in the travel experience to get to the mall, she said. That’s because now, e-commerce is sharing the road.
“Google and Amazon and eBay deliver to your home. Now the congestion is on our door-to-door streets,” she said.
Ross said CQGRD researchers have been looking at e-commerce.
“It’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” she said. “We’re all enjoying it and no one is taking care of it.”
While the convenience of e-commerce is a blessing, Ross said that residential streets aren’t designed to deal with the delivery truck capacity they’re experiencing. Packages from online shopping get delivered virtually 24-7, she said.
“The big question is, what does e-commerce do to emissions, safety, air quality, and access? All of those are now issues,” Ross said. “It has consequences we need to monitor and try to mitigate."
Ross also thinks to the not-so-distant future and the impact that autonomous vehicles could have on holiday shopping.
“Emerging and improving technologies promise a safer, more efficient transport system. That's going to impact shopping, zoning and parking requirements, and street design. It will also create new challenges and opportunities for transit operations," she said.
“Imagine, under full automation, a vehicle that drops you off at work, then stops by a cleaner's where your articles are deposited and then provides on-call services elsewhere before picking you up from work, or your favorite store."
Autonomous vehicles will influence all kinds of travel and shape the sharing economy in ways we can only speculate about, she said.
Shoppers are different now, too
Ross is quick to point out that Millennials are responsible for much of this holiday season’s online shopping, but they haven’t stopped driving to the mall entirely.
For them, weekends are peak times to do specialty shopping, she said. “For example, at smart tech vendors and phone stores, parking is a challenge this time of year.”
Millennials grew up in malls as teenagers, and now find them boring, Dunham-Jones said. It’s been the Baby Boomers’ shopping habits that have sustained malls for the longest time, “but now Boomers like me are hitting the age where we don’t buy that much.”
“By the time you’re in your 50s, you have most of the stuff you need,” she said. It’s the following generation, Gen X, that are now in their prime consuming years.
“In general, Gen X is a small generation. There are not enough of them to occupy all the single-family homes that the Baby Boomers will vacate. They’ve also not had the same kind of job security the Baby Boomers had, and they don’t have as much in savings, so they’re not spending at the same rate,” Dunham-Jones said.
This leaves Generation Y as the biggest target market for retails, Dunham-Jones said, “but they are saddled with debt, and more interested in buying experiences than products."
"All of these shifting markets are all the more reason why malls are rapidly evolving.”