The "Retail Apocalypse" Couldn't Kill Malls, but the Pandemic Will

Ah, remember malls? 

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Imagine, if you will, that the year is 1999. Britney Spears is topping the charts, Furbys are flying off the shelves, and teenagers across the U.S. are spending Friday and Saturday nights at the place to be: their local mall.

Mentally transporting to a quintessential ‘90s mall is easy. I can still picture myself, flanked by my two best friends, walking through the glass doors of Claire’s, where we’d buy matching choker necklaces, pastel butterfly clips, and an array of body glitter to wear at the next middle school dance. Later, we’d stroll through FYE looking for the latest *NSYNC or Backstreet Boys album (we loved both equally), or duck into Hot Topic just to feel rebellious. It’s a memory that’s as vivid as a photograph taken on a disposable camera, and it smells like Gap Dream.

Today, the world looks a lot different — and it’s not just that Spears is burning down home gyms now and rare Furbys are being sold on eBay for hundreds of dollars. The heyday of malls has faded into the past; many have permanently shut their doors, and modern-day shopping centers are looking more and more unlike the nostalgic weekend hangouts of the ‘90s. And with the coronavirus pandemic threatening to change the landscape of everyday life as we know it, shopping malls could possibly disappear forever.

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Even without the backdrop of a pandemic, the future of malls has grown increasingly uncertain. Between the rise of e-commerce and the over-abundance of shopping malls themselves, brick-and-mortar stores have been facing a “retail apocalypse” for years. In April 2019, The Washington Post reported that an estimated 75,000 stores selling clothing, furniture, and electronics would be closed by the year 2026. Approximately one year later, the fate of shopping malls and big box stores looks even more grim.

In order to slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, many states have been under stay-at-home orders since March, and non-essential businesses have temporarily closed. These strategies are undoubtedly crucial to help flatten the curve, avoid unnecessary deaths, and minimize the burden on healthcare workers.

But the temporary pause on daily life has proven to be financially catastrophic for many retail businesses, including anchor stores (think: the big department stores that usually sit on either end of the mall; most malls have at least two). On May 7, Neiman Marcus declared bankruptcy, becoming the largest U.S. retailer to do so during the pandemic. J.C. Penney filed for bankruptcy on May 15, with plans to close 242 locations, while Macy’s delayed its first-quarter earnings report until July, due to “significant business disruption.” Nordstrom, often thought of as the shining star of department stores, recently announced permanent closure of several stores, and Lord & Taylor is reportedly considering liquidating dozens of its stores.

Other mall retailers are experiencing financial distress as well. J.Crew filed for bankruptcy on May 4, and Gap reportedly will need to borrow additional funds in order to have “sufficient liquidity” for the next year. For smaller stores housed in malls, the pandemic might prove to be extra catastrophic if they can’t meet their bills. Taubman Centers, one of the largest mall owners in the U.S., reportedly instructed its tenants in a letter that they must pay rent, despite the fact that malls are closed amid stay-at-home orders. And there’s been an additional devastating financial impact on retail employees, hundreds of thousands of whom have lost their jobs due to coronavirus.

Even when malls reopen, as many are beginning to do, shopping centers will continue to face coronavirus-related challenges. With social distancing measures still in place, it’s likely that consumers might still avoid crowded malls. One study conducted by the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) suggests that only 60% of Americans polled feel comfortable returning to malls. And while malls might adapt different strategies to stay in business — such as curb-side pickup and returns — the mall “experience” as we know it might be forever changed.

The possible death of shopping malls is much more than a financial loss for businesses; for millennials and Gen X’ers, the proverbial “retail apocalypse” represents the end of an era. Kara, a 32-year-old who grew up in rural N. Dak., recalls frequently visiting the Columbia Mall in Grand Forks as a teenager. “Going to the mall was an event for me, a child who was obsessed with pretty things,” she tells InStyle, adding that she would spend hours shopping with her mother, visiting the Clinique counter at Dayton’s to learn about makeup or browsing B. Dalton’s collection of Anne of Green Gables books.

Today, even before the coronavirus, the Columbia Mall looks quite different. “A lot of the decor is the same, and a few stores, but the wonder and excitement I used to have about the mall is gone,” Kara says, noting that she would feel sad if her mall eventually closed for good. “I'm a huge supporter of small, local retail and do most of my shopping locally,” she adds. “That said, I think the mall is eternal.”

Emma, a 34-year-old who grew up in Park Ridge, Ill., feels similarly, “As I've become more mindful of sustainability and waste, part of me feels like the existence of malls can encourage unnecessary consumption,” she says, adding that she still cherishes the experiences of visiting the mall with friends. “[But] nothing can shake the positive memories of that.”

As a teenager, Emma visited the Old Orchard Mall in Skokie, Ill., where she shopped at anchor stores like Nordstrom and Bloomingdales, as well as popular retail stores like Claire’s, Bath & Body Works, and Limited Too. But, as Emma explains, “Going to the mall wasn't just about shopping…. Really, it was more about hanging out with friends, window-shopping, chatting, and feeling a little bit grown up.”

For Ella, who grew up in Oakton, Va., visiting the mall was a special tradition she shared with her mother, whom she describes as her “beacon for personal style.” She holds a special fondness for one particular trip where her mom surprised her with a $100 shopping spree. “We didn't come from much money, so we rarely bought things unless they were a necessity,” she explains. “Shopping for leisure was always a luxury that we celebrated, since it was something we did so infrequently.”

The 27-year-old, who works in fashion now, adds that while she wouldn’t be surprised to see the era of shopping malls come to a final close, it would still leave her with a pang of sadness. “So many memories are associated with being in the fitting rooms with friends or my mom, seeing pieces on me that helped me learn more about myself,” Ella says. “There’s just a certain nostalgia to shopping at the mall. You can’t create it, or replicate it, anywhere else.”

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