The end of the wave

At one point some 50 years ago, shopping malls became “the wave of the future.” They gradually transformed retail shopping habits, urban economies, and our transportation system.

Shopping malls were first “invented” by a European socialist who dreamed of transforming the landscape; he hated cars and wanted to reduce dependence on them. Later a Bohemian refugee in the U.S. designed a revolutionary-type store, using arcades and eye-level display cases.

By the late 1940s, department stores moved to the suburbs. A few began to build adjacent strips of shops, which became boutique-like. Those were an attempt to recreate urban shopping districts.

Then, in parts of the United States clusters of small shops sprang up next to a department store and aside a parking lot. Some placed a roof over the structures and added air conditioning to lure shoppers in warm weather. They became, in effect, very much like the shopping malls we know today.

Those shopping malls soon required a transportation network, with roads leading to the malls and their parking lots.

Those moves were a futile attempt to resemble European shopping districts, but they lacked the good taste for that idea. Ugly signs and cluttered shop windows multiplied.

While it was not part of the plan to take business away from downtown shopping areas, that is what happened. As shopping malls spread out over the countryside, local shops could not be competitive in price or convenience. People had to go from store to store, for say, shoes, dry cleaners, clothes, furniture, or books. Too, parking in front of small outlets became progressively more difficult as the number of cars soared. Hence, shopping malls looked like an answer.

Local governments, hard hit by the loss of revenue from small stores’ contribution to property taxes, offered incentives for new mall developers. Ever-bigger malls appeared to the point of absurdity, like the monstrous one in Edmonton. As they became larger, convenience was lost as shoppers had to travel some distances to reach a section of the mall offering the desired merchandise. Too, service all but disappeared, as there were not enough sales personnel to assist customers.

Middle-aged shoppers soon yearned for the good old days when shopping was more pleasant.  Furthermore, “mall walkers” took over the perimeters of the centres, not buying but overcrowding the passageways. Multitudes of teenagers hovered around the malls, and with them all kinds of frightening criminal activity. Then on the outskirts of some large centres junky discount stores and factory outlets sprang up, further impairing the mall’s image.

It is no surprise then that shopping malls are at “the end of a wave.” With shoppers turned off by malls, and consumers’ dollars stretched to the limit, the heyday of those centres is over.



Bruce Whitestone