Disappearing landmarks: ‘Change is the only constant in life,’ Heraclitus

American photographer Seph Lawless in his book Autopsy of America: The Death of a Nation has documented the failed state of the shopping mall in the United States of America with a series of eerie photographs of empty decaying buildings, shattered display windows, naked mannequins and broken parking lots. It’s a collection of haunting images that reminds us that Heraclitus of Ephesus, a Greek philosopher who died in 475 BC was absolutely correct.

How has this decline come about and what does the future hold for the shopping mall? As we here have grown to accept the loss of the stand-alone cinema, American anthropologists and economists will spend time over the next few years analysing the disappearance of these landmarks, as society grapples with the change.

The shopping mall, a modern American term (shopping centre is the preferred term for Europe and South America) for a complex of buildings which form a complex of shops representing various merchandisers, evolved after World War II with the housing boom and became a standard fixture of suburban sprawl.

As late as the mid-1990s, malls were still being constructed at the rate of 140 per year in America. By the turn of the century, there was a noticeable decline in the state of health of the malls, which were typically anchored by major retail chains, as vacancy rates for retail space began to increase. With the recession in 2007, there was a marked increase as vacancy rates in malls, and the nadir of forty percent, which is considered to be the “dying” stage, started to show up on the computer screens of mall owners.  By 2014, twenty percent of all malls in the USA had the disturbing vacancy rate of ten percent. Analysts figured the landscape had become over-retailed. Meanwhile, it’s neighbour to the north, Canada, albeit with a much smaller population, had only built two malls since 1992.

The major retailers have experienced massive drops in sales in the last two years and have been forced to close the doors of hundreds of their outlets, most notably in the shopping malls. Nine merchandisers have filed for bankruptcy so far in 2017, as many as 2016. Major retail players such as JC Penney, Sears and Payless have not escaped this declining situation. So what really is responsible for this?

The instant answer is of course online shopping. In the last seven years, the online retailer Amazon’s revenues have risen to $80 trillion as compared to Sears’ $22 trillion, as more than 50% of American households tap into the services of the online giant. Coupled with this is the growth of online services offered by several new players in the apparel field, who only operate in the online world, and thanks to modern technology are easy and cheap to use, dovetailed with generous return policies, have created havoc for their brick and mortar competitors.

As e-commerce continues to expand rapidly, marketers are quicker to adapt to their new customers and are constantly providing new experiences for their individually targeted buyers. Although, at present, shoppers still enjoy visiting stores and experience of touching, seeing and smelling merchandise the new generation is developing an entirely new set of shopping habits to their parents.

Secondly, researchers have found that there has been a significant shift in consumer habits with the younger generation moving away from purchasing apparel and furniture to spending their hard earned cash on entertainment, air travel and accommodation and fitness related activities. The millennials are more likely to spend more in bars and restaurants than at the grocery store.

Lastly, America simply built too many malls, and as industries declined or simply folded as was the case in the Mid-West, lots towns centred on one or two industries, quite simply collapsed as the vast majority of the population moved away, leaving the shopping malls to become ghost buildings

The future of the mall as we know it today is anyone’s guess as the retail industry continues to evolve. One e-commerce analyst predicts that 25% of America’s shopping malls will no longer exist in 2022.

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