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The Future of Shopping Malls in a Post-COVID World

empty shopping mall

The pace of change is happening so rapidly that perhaps the time has come to rethink shopping malls. With the commercial property market in flux, driven in part by the glut of retail space, the mall of the future is starting to take shape.

Back in 1970, there were 30,000 shopping malls in the United States, and according to Statista, by 2017 this figure grew to approximately 116,000.

That’s a lot of malls, not to mention an awful lot of space to fill. And guess what, tenants and consumers alike are turning their backs in increasing numbers. Is the dream over?

Well, yes and no. And to help answer that apparent contradiction, we need to take a brief look at the history of malls.

“Originally conceived as community centers, shopping malls appeared to be the answer to the insatiable appetite of consumerism.”

How it all began

The first enclosed mall opened in 1956 in Minnesota. However, the boom in mall openings didn’t take place until the 1980s — more than 16,000 malls popped up between 1980 and 1990 in the United States alone.

During this period, megamalls started to appear. One of the first was the West Edmonton Mall in Alberta, Canada, which opened in 1981 — with more than 800 stores and a hotel, amusement park, miniature golf course, church, zoo and a 438-foot-long lake.

Originally conceived as community centers, shopping malls appeared to be the answer to the insatiable appetite of consumerism. But then, long before anyone had heard of social distancing, we began to fall out of love with them.

An economic downturn, coinciding with the rise of e-commerce, meant that shopping malls had lost part of the reason for us to visit them. And all of a sudden, some cathedrals to capitalism began to shutter.

Why take the time and effort to visit a mall when we can get everything we need with just a few mouse clicks?

Then the COVID-19 pandemic introduced us all to a new reality. Where malls had once been places for spontaneous enjoyment, spending time in a heady mix of retail, hospitality and entertainment, overnight they belonged to another era.

“For the remaining malls, the good news is they have a future, provided they tap into a little imagination.”

Dinosaur or phoenix?

I still vividly recall visiting a mall near me the day non-essential retail reopened. One-way systems, signs everywhere, marshals on hand to redirect anyone who dared move out of line.

We all moved in the same direction as if herded by some invisible force — it was ghastly.

So, in the face of already declining interest, now compounded by the pandemic, are shopping malls destined to go the way of the dinosaur, or will they rise like a phoenix?

Provided they can reinvent themselves as even better places to spend time, the future outlook isn’t all bad. Malls can adapt in numerous ways.

Just as there is growing evidence to support empty town center stores converting to residential spaces, shopping malls can serve many different purposes.

In Taiwan, for example, a shopping mall turned into a water park, and in London, a football stadium morphed into luxury apartments — showcasing the power of reinvention.

For the remaining malls, the good news is they have a future, provided they tap into a little imagination.

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