March 19, 2018

Managing Malls and Regional Spatial Change in the Era of Amazon Prime

Colby (1)By Colby King

If you’re looking for an entertaining way to spend a few minutes, I recommend the American Mall Game on Bloomberg’s website. The game appeared on February 7, 2018, and was created by James Pants and Steph Davidson, along with a team of others at Bloomberg.

As a player in the American Mall Game, you take the position of a character who owns and manages a mall that has fallen on difficult times. An opening message at the start of the game explains that these are “dire times for U.S. Mall owners. Decades of overbuilding and the invention of online shopping combined to leave the country with an extreme excess” [of retail space].

After this cautionary note, you click through to choose which of several characters you want to play as – maybe Linda who earned a fortune through her juice bar franchise, or Maximilian, the tech-savvy investor. Regardless of your character, you are faced with similar difficult choices in managing your mall. Do you invest in modernizing your mall, or cut costs? Do you allow a TV crew to film their mid-1990s paranormal teen period show? If so, what do you do about the Berlin Cyberpunks making pilgrimages to your mall? Do you agree to lower rent for the “Pac Moon” and “Pineapple Republic” clothing stores, or leave their managers to close down?

Bloomberg screenshot

Retail and commercial spaces matter in society, not only because those spaces are where we conduct a good portion of social life, but also because we attach meanings to those places. As Mark Gottdiener recognized in his 1997 book The Theming of America, the themes associated with commercial spaces have permeated across social life.

Gottdiener illustrates how symbols of retail and commercial space during this era were intertwined with American culture and social life. The retail-centered revitalization of places like Boston’s Fanueil Hall and New York City’s Times Square were populated by consumer destinations, and evoked these symbols.

The Mall of America is an example of these processes, as it served as host to many of the events associated with this year’s Super Bowl, causing some to observe that the NFL had “moved in” to the mall, and inspiring others to identify particular stores with NFL stars. So, the condition of retail spaces is not just a reflection of the economy, but also meaningful indicator of the cultural milieu.

But not all malls are doing as well as the Mall of America, and this game evokes nostalgia, as it looks much like popular games from the earlier decades and is set in a place that was also more popular in an earlier era. The popularity of movies like Mallrats reflect some of the same nostalgia for the era evoked by this game and highlight the role of retail space in social life.

The existence and plight of suburban malls is a topic of concern in urban sociology. Joel Stillerman provides a summary of some of this research in his 2015 book on the broader topic of consumption, The Sociology of Consumption: A Global Approach. For many observers, suburban malls exemplify the worst characteristics of suburban sprawl.

The movement of retail shopping to malls in the 1970s and 80s, often while downtown shopping districts emptied out, was also associated with a decrease in use of public community space as shoppers ventured indoors to the privately controlled space of the mall. Suburban malls heavily depend on car infrastructure, and usually entail large, frequently underused parking lots. This episode of the podcast 99% Invisible summarizes how Victor Gruen, one of the shopping malls creators, came to regret the impact of t shopping malls as he observed that they contributed to the separation of urban functions in a “vicious cycle.”

Many observers bleakly observe (or, celebrate?) the demise of suburban shopping malls. Photographers like Seph Lawless and Johny Joo have captured haunting images of abandoned malls. Matt Stopera at Buzzfeed notes the existence of a Dead Malls Enthusiasts Facebook group that has compiled a map of “dead” malls. And Deadmalls.com has compiled stories, pictures, and created a YouTube channel examining these abandoned retail spaces.

While this looks bleak, not all malls are dying. In 2015, Amanda Kolson Hurley noted that many malls are doing very well, and that of the 1,200 malls open in America at the time, with only a 5.5% vacancy rate. Hurley points out that the success or failure of suburban malls are often a response to changing wages and demographic conditions in the area.

Still, Hurley notes, “The International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC), a retail trade association, is worried enough about the dead-malls narrative that it has hired a PR firm to counter it.” With the increasing ubiquity of delivery options and the rising popularity of Amazon Prime’s delivery services, there is likely even more work needed to counter this narrative.

Meanwhile, architects, urban planners, and sociologists have ideas for what might be done with the abandoned places. Ellen Dunham-Jones examines the situation for these abandoned malls, and suggests a variety of strategies for retrofitting them to make life in and around these places more livable and more sustainable. More recently, Nolan Grey at CityLab outlines ways in which cities and suburbs might leverage the loss in use of retail space to encourage land-use reforms.

So Bloomberg’s American Mall game is not just a goofy diversion that illustrates nostalgia for games and retails spaces that were popular in the 1990s. The game also highlights these evolving conditions in the retail industry and across metropolitan regions that are adjusting to changing economic and consumer culture patterns.

Business Insider’s Ben Gilbert explains the game, writing, “Like with real American malls, the one in ‘The American Mall Game’ is hemorrhaging money. Stores are cutting prices dramatically in an attempt to stay afloat.” Gilbert’s summary did prompt Thomas Houston, a Bloomberg editor, to reassure folks that it is possible to win. As AVClub’s Gabe Worgafik summarizes, “It’s kind of like SimCity, except everyone hates you and one day you’re going to die.”

The laughing, animated Jeff Bezos at the end of the American Mall game reminds players that Amazon Prime and other online, delivery-based consumption services are delivering more than just consumer goods and groceries. The company’s operations are also contributing to a changing reality across our metropolitan regions.

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