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OPINION - Is the "shopping mall era" ending?

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) When I was a high schooler going to the mall was a big deal. When my family moved to the Connecticut suburbs, the Trumbull Shopping Park grew right before our eyes. It was a traditional mall with two anchor stores at either side -- a Macys and a Bloomingdales. Over the next few years three new wings were built onto the mall, with three new anchor stores and two new levels of secondary stores. And today the same mall has allowed Bust Buy and Lowes to build free standing stores in the parking lot of their complex. It’s a suburban mega-mall.

Today the mall is Westfield-Trumbull, and it appears to be healthy. But the long-term trends are not good. A mall needs anchor stores -- and the big department stores regularly file for bankruptcy, reorganize, close unprofitable stores, and come back as smaller versions of themselves. Having a footprint in the Fairfield County suburbs is probably a requirement for an upscale department store. If this same mall was in Des Moines, Rochester or Richmond -- more blue collar markets -- there would be some big holes to fill in their retail space.

For the last decade, the era of mall shopping has been waning. The big box retailer has been ascending. And now on-line sales have seen all the growth.

It’s fair to ask, is the era of the shopping mall over? The answer is probably ‘yes’. Consider the evidence: are any more of these types of malls being built? Very few. Do those that are already built have rising or falling vacancy rates? Rising. Is there a shortage of anchor stores? Yes, as the Cedar Creek Mall and CenterPoint Marketplace Mall well know -- and the Wausau Center Mall is about to find out. The retail environment is dynamic. We shop differently from one year to the next. And, if it isn’t already, the mall model is becoming obsolete.

My own shopping perception is that malls are inconvenient, having to park far away and walk greater distances to get to the actual point of sale. My sense is also that Wal Mart and Target under-price a mall anchor store on almost everything. Most malls have teenager non-shoppers, sometimes with gang ties in larger, more dangerous cities. Some malls really do need “mall cops” -- which isn’t the environment that I’d like to shop in.

The closing of JCPenney’s Wausau store in May will be a crisis for the Wausau Center Mall if a new anchor store isn’t found in quick order. Without an anchor at the west end of the mall, the smaller stores at that part of the complex won’t get the right level of foot traffic. Those stores won’t survive. A sort of dry-rot begins to set in. I’ve seen this happen before at the Park City Mall -- which the Trumbull Shopping Park put out of business. That mall was anchored by a Sears on one end and a Gimble’s on the other. People use to literally walk the length of the mall to comparison-shop the two big department stores, and then back again if the first store had the better price. The mall started to die when only Sears remained. Soon its vacancy rate was more than 50-percent. Today a community college occupies the space, with old stores turned into classrooms.

Some may argue that JCPenney is a special case. They have systemic corporate problems, so perhaps the closure of their store isn’t a reflection on the retail environment in downtown Wausau. I think the jury is still out. I’m certain of this: if the Wausau mall fails, the local shopping landscape will be changed forever. Is there a plan B for downtown? Or are we tied to a mall-based model that’s fading? This is a discussion that the Wausau community should have sooner rather than later.

Chris Conley

Image: AEON MALL via WikiCommons