The Evolution of Malls and Shopping Centers

For decades, the shopping mall has been a staple of American consumer culture. But the concept of a shopping center, which originated in ancient times, has continued to evolve over the years. This article will explore the history of malls and shopping centers, their changing role and formats, and what the future may hold for these retail institutions.

Origins of the Shopping Center

Some of the earliest known shopping centers date back to ancient Rome, where large markets and bazaars became central gathering places for buying goods. In medieval Europe, market squares in cities served a similar function. Vendors would gather to sell produce, meat, fish, bread, cloth, and other staple goods.

In the modern era, the suburban shopping center arose in the 1920s and 30s with the rise of automobile access. Early strips like Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, MO and Highland Park Village in Dallas, TX consisted of retail stores arranged alongside parking lots or pedestrian walkways. Though rudimentary, they laid the groundwork for future development.

The American Shopping Mall

The enclosed, climate-controlled shopping mall as we know it emerged after World War II. In 1956, Southdale Center opened in Edina, MN as the first fully enclosed mall in America. Architect Victor Gruen envisioned the mall as a community center, not just a shopping venue. Southdale housed 72 stores on two levels, including anchor department stores and a garden court under a skylight roof.

Enclosed malls like Southdale offered convenient one-stop shopping, protection from weather, parking, and opportunities for leisure like dining and socializing. Other early malls that helped define the architecture and layout included Michigan’s Northland Center, California’s South Coast Plaza, and Atlanta’s Lenox Square.

By the 1970s and 80s, malls were ubiquitous across America’s suburbs. Malls like The Mall of America in Minnesota, West Edmonton Mall in Canada, and Sawgrass Mills in Florida housed hundreds of stores and become destinations in their own right. Beyond shopping, malls provided a safe, climate-controlled place for teens and families to gather, dine, see movies, and more.

The Design of Shopping Malls

Modern indoor malls are meticulously designed spaces centered around department store anchors like Macy’s, JCPenney, Sears, or Nordstrom. Two or more anchors are strategically placed at ends or corners to draw customers through the mall concourse past inline retail stores and eateries.

The mall layout facilitates impulse shopping, leisurely strolling through the variety of shops that line the corridors. Kiosks and carts sell novelties and snacks. Food courts provide varied dining and gathering spaces. The mall becomes an all-encompassing retail and entertainment ecosystem.

These palatial shopping centers feature soaring skylights, fountains, virtual reality, interactive art, kids’ play areas, events stages, and sometimes even amusement park rides. Careful planning goes into lighting, flooring, landscaping, amenities, and ambiance. Malls become shrines to consumerism and popular culture.

Changes & Challenges for Shopping Malls

While malls experienced decades of growth, the late 1990s brought challenges with the rise of online shopping and big box chains. Anchor stores that once drew crowds started closing. Consumers had more choices of where and how to shop. Many grand malls fell into decline with high vacancy rates.

Developers have adapted by reinventing community malls into lifestyle centers focused on amenities like gyms, restaurants, entertainment venues, offices, and housing rather than just retail. Many older malls have been renovated, rebranded, or even razed for new mixed-use complexes. Unique offerings and experiences bring shoppers back versus just stores alone.

Outdoor Lifestyle Centers

Outdoor lifestyle centers represent a new iteration of the shopping mall concept. They contain the same types of stores and amenities but in an open-air plaza versus enclosed structure. The Grove in Los Angeles helped pioneer this format, combining retail like Nordstrom, Apple, and Nike with restaurants, a movie theater, fountains, and pedestrian walkways.

Lifestyle centers aim to provide a lively Main Street-style ambiance with gathering spaces. Other examples include Easton Town Center in Columbus, OH, Crocker Park in Cleveland, and Belmar in Lakewood, CO. Having shopping, dining, and entertainment all in one walkable district revitalizes the idea of a town center or plaza.

Single-Tenant Big Box Stores

Another trend that challenged the traditional mall model was the rise of single-tenant big box stores like Walmart, Target, and Costco. These vast stores offer bulk goods and deeply discounted prices that smaller mall stores can’t compete with. The big box format also provides convenience of ample parking and extensive selection under one roof.

However, malls have adapted to this challenge by incorporating their own stand-alone big box stores on perimeter pads with entrances from the parking lot. Brands like Target, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Best Buy, and Home Depot serve as secondary anchors that draw additional foot traffic to the mall.

The Future of Shopping Centers

While facing challenges in recent decades, shopping centers continue evolving to fit shifting demographics and consumer demands. Developers plan new mixed-use complexes in urban areas to attract Millennials and Gen Z shoppers, integrating malls into transit-oriented, walkable neighborhoods. Adaptive reuse projects aim to breathe new life into outdated properties.

Successful malls offer immersive, interactive experiences that go beyond just shopping. Dining, entertainment, coworking spaces, events, and technology all integrate to create engaging community hubs. Unique local shops get a platform alongside national chains. Incorporating offices, hotels, and apartments makes malls multipurpose neighborhood centers.

The COVID-19 pandemic also accelerated certain technologies like touchless checkout and interactives directories. These digital innovations will likely continue being rolled out to transform the traditional mall model into a more modern, relevant experience. Over their nearly 100 year history, shopping centers have shown the ability to adapt to social and economic change. The mall still occupying a vital place in retail and community life, though in an ever-evolving form.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: