The changing face of retail

One of my fondest memories as a little girl was accompanying my mother downtown to go shopping. Going downtown often meant getting started early and catching several busses, but I considered it a great adventure. I loved getting dressed up and, best of all, having my mother all to myself for a day spent doing “girl stuff.”

There were several department stores to choose from, including Montgomery Wards, Sears, and Walker Scott’s. But, the locally-owned Marston’s was always our last stop because, when we finished shopping, we took the elevator up to the sixth floor to have lunch at the very elegant (at least to my young eyes) Tea Room.

Marston's Department Store
Marston’s Department Store

This was before 1961, the year our city got its first shopping mall. After Mission Valley Center opened, there was no longer a need to go downtown to shop. The Center not only had two large anchor stores, it also had lots of specialty shops and a food court that offered a myriad of dining choices (but, sadly for me, none nearly as stylish as my beloved Tea Room). Ease and convenience won out over elegance. Soon after the shopping mall opened, the downtown department stores closed due to a lack of business.

Mission Valley Center
Mission Valley Center

Over the years, shopping malls have morphed as tastes and shopping habits have changed. Anchor stores have been swapped out as former retail giants have merged or have gone out of business. Names of stores that I grew up with are gone completely, replaced by new and different ones. Even with these changes, most malls remained busy and vibrant.

But, something different is happening to today’s malls that can’t be fixed by tweaking their tenants. With the rise of online shopping and the hit that retail stores took during the recession, brick and mortar shopping centers have experienced major declines in sales. Just as the lure of the mall siphoned customers away from downtown department stores, the internet is making it unnecessary to enter a store at all. Traditional retailers are suffering and malls are dying.

One of the former giants that is feeling the effects of the new normal is Macy’s. What began in 1843 as a retail dry goods store in Massachusetts, Macy’s changed, grew, and acquired other retailers to become the well-known brand it is today. But, now it’s in trouble. After a 2016 holiday season marked by disappointing sales, Macy’s announced the closing of 68 of its stores nationwide, resulting in the loss of 10,000 jobs. I recently visited a location that is closing, and it was a bit eerie. It was like going to an estate sale after someone very old had died. Oh, and they were a hoarder.

 

This modern phenomenon of ghost boxes and dead malls that were once retail meccas is probably only going to get worse. As customers seek out new retail experiences and become more and more comfortable shopping online, the idea of driving to the mall, finding parking, then foraging through racks of stuff you don’t want to find something you do, will seem anachronistic.

Most of us have seen those lists of items familiar to older generations, but that younger generations don’t recognize; things like rotary phones, film canisters, and library card catalogs. It wouldn’t be too surprising if, some day, shopping malls could be added to those lists for generations to come.

54 thoughts on “The changing face of retail”

  1. “Ease and convenience won out over elegance.” And so it continues. We are about to lose our local mall. Macys has closed (two stores) and Sears is closing. I don’t think the mall will be able to survive.

    1. The mall where Macy’s is vacating has been on a death spiral for awhile so I don’t think it will survive either. I was there for a completely non-retail reason and god knows I have curtailed my shopping by a lot lately, so I probably am part of the problem.

  2. I am not much of a shopper, so I wasn’t aware of the decline in shopping malls/ retail stores. However, even I noticed the extinction of brick and mortar book stores caused by online sales.

    I’m sure you’re right. Going places and touching things before buying is becoming a rarer and rarer event.

      1. Wow! seriously? I’ve never even heard of an actual Amazon bookstore :0 (not only am I an infrequent shopper, I’m pretty sure Romania isn’t a marketable location for new retail outlets, so I am missing out on pos of the latest trends)

      2. Actually, that’s more than just being ‘old school’ that’s being a wise shopper – literally feeling the drape of a fabric is important in deciding quality of a garment…

        I don’t mind shopping online for some stuff, but bottom line – if women’s bodies are so un-uniform how does shopping for clothes via a CATALOGUE (yep, internet sites are just glorified catalogue retailers) help us in the search for the perfect fit jeans????

        grrr….

        1. I agree, unless, I guess, if it’s a brand that you are very familiar with and you know the sizing and quality… but even then… There used to be a retailer who had very few brick and mortar locations so they had a robust catalog business. They did a great job photographing their garments to make them look really nice and I purchased a few things now and then. I think I ended up sending 80% back. They then opened up a store not too far from me so I was able to feel the fabrics first and try them on… I was then able to see for myself how poorly made the clothes were. They are now out of business completely.

  3. Library catalogs?! Say it ain’t so! 😉

    What I loved about those old, local department stores were the proprietary restaurants many of them had somewhere on the top floor. Even after the days of crust-removed sandwiches had passed, those restaurants were still nice places to eat with a parent (usually Mom) and a sibling or three during shopping breaks. But then, well, the advent of the food court happened, and they were gone. And so it goes. Great post, Janis. – Marty

    1. I always ordered the open-faced chicken sandwich, which was served with mash potatoes and gravy – oh so yummy and grown up. Fortunately, I didn’t have to share my mother’s attention with my two brothers. They happily stayed home with my father.

  4. I don’t mind if malls go away. They replaced real walkable cities. Maybe now we’ll see a resurgence in stores in shopping in cities and European-style shops and downtowns with online for everything else.

    1. I agree. They built that mall right in the middle of a beautiful valley and surrounded it with asphalt. What I’ve noticed lately are malls that are built to look like shops along wondering streets. Fake, yes, but maybe better than the mega-structures.

  5. When I heard the news about Macy’s I held my breath. Our store is not closing. For me nothing beats the decadent day at the “big” mall by myself fondling beautiful things, then taking myself out for lunch. I buy on-line but some things must be seen or tried on. My on-line experience with shoes is very iffy. Sometimes they look better in a picture than on my feet. Then there is always “what shade of blue is that exactly?” When I was young my mother took me to the local city for a day of “girl shopping.” It was the best. There were several restaurants to chose from. On-line shopping does not replace that. We’ve had some upscale malls open around here where you can park in front of the store (if you’re lucky). There is no inside hallways connecting anything. They are nice as long as the weather isn’t bad. When it is you are running from store to store avoiding rain or freezing your buns off.

    1. I guess tastes and expectations change as time goes on, the problem is that these great mega-shopping centers were designed for a specific era that is fading away. Unfortunately communities are left with the empty remains. I agree with you, I want to touch, and try on before I buy. The very few items of clothing I’ve purchased online have been sent back because they weren’t what I expected. Maybe with 3-D printers, we’ll be able to have clothes and shoes made as we wait, or we will be able to print out whatever we want at home.

    1. Ha! I almost posted a picture of the dinosaur (or, was it a dragon? I think her name was Daisy). I remember parents feeling comfortable leaving their kids there for a little while as they shopped. Not something that would happen today (nor would building a play structure for kids out of concrete). Somehow, we all survived!

  6. I think that there will be people who like to “browse” and buy clothes and items in a real store for quite some time. Mostly the older generations, which does mean that a couple of generations from now, malls might be extinct. But, it is quite possible that the smaller stores will become “in” again, making city centers more attractive. Everything seems to get replaced at some point. I’m not a shopper and like the convenience of online stores, but, I also like to try something on before buying it… A pickle, and a reason why I don’t like shopping at all. Luckily, my clothes last a long, long time. 🙂

    1. Even though I don’t buy many clothes these days (retirement will do that), I do admit that sometimes I like to just browse around. A mall makes it convenient and the people-watching is always amusing. I don’t think the demise of malls in general will come in the near future, but I think new shopping centers are being redesigned to cater to a new generation with different expectations. As I mentioned in another reply to a comment, even Amazon is opening brick and Mortar book stores so they must realize that not everyone wants to do all their shopping online.

  7. Wow I haven’t seen a reference to “Monkey Wards” in 30 yrs. There were several when I was growing up in Baltimore. Yes we’re all experiencing this. Downtown Baltimore where Hutzler’s Department Store (most chi chi shopping in town with great restaurant where food was delivered on silver trays by black and white uniformed waitstaff) became a ghost town when the flight to the suburbs and suburban mall growth exploded. All these years later it still is except down by the water (which used to be skid row before Rouse developed the Harborplace). As a child our 1 big annual vacation was to go to NYC for 3 days to see 2 Bway plays and shop at the big Macy’s and Orbachs (cheaper, gone for many years) and walk the city till our feet hurt. Joseph A. Banks used to be the high priced quality retailer founded in Baltimore before it sold out and all the US manufacturing was shifted to China. It was what we all think of now when we think of Barneys and Burberrys. It makes me sad when I see the spoofs on SNL, though they’ve nailed it!

    I have to admit I am guilty of mostly using the internet- Amazon, Netflix, etc to save time, $ and gas. Don’t know but since I work in Silicon Valley where the business day is 24×7 “follow the sun” eschewing physical shopping seems like a natural outgrowth from our “prosperity”. Sad…

    FYI, given that you are in SD, did you see the “36 hrs in SD” travel piece in the NYT?

    Take care and thanks for your blogging. I look forward to your Grati-Tuesdays.

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    1. I almost referred to “Monkey Wards” in my post, but I wasn’t sure it would resonate with anyone… I guess I was wrong! I wasn’t aware that Joseph A. Banks used to be high-end. My, how they have changed – as so many have in their race to the bottom.

      I just read that NYT article about San Diego. The Wall Street Journal did a similar one last November. I guess my home town is becoming the new “It” destination.

      Thank you for your great comment!

  8. My town had a beloved local department store that had grown with the city since the 1800s and even had a few stores in larger cities, like Seattle. That store, The Bon Marche, was bought out by Macy’s much to the disappointment of locals. Then the downtown Macy’s (last of the downtown department stores) closed it’s old, outdated building, but the Macy’s continued at the mall. I think it’s still one of the anchor stores there, but to be honest, I go to the mall so infrequently that I’m not sure. I love shopping downtown and detest the mall were everything looks the same and I hardly know what store I’m in.

    1. Supposedly, Macy’s (and other department stores) are “consolidating” by closing older, under-performing locations. I don’t know if that’s just the first shoe to drop or if those adjustments will save them in the long run. It’s ironic how many downtowns are being revitalized and how shoppers and diners are flocking back. For me, the mall is much easier to get to, but, all things being equal, I’d choose the downtown experience too.

  9. Wonderful post, and great comments! Department stores, mall, and even small stores are taking a hit from online shopping, that’s true. But there is something else going on as well—I’ve been doing some research on Millennials, and I’ve discovered that their purchasing power (and desire to shop) is vastly different from previous generations. So they are at the forefront of a huge commercial and economic change.

    1. I hope you plan to write more about that change. I’d love to think that we are slowly turning away from being a consumer-based society (it seems rather shallow)… but I’m not sure what would replace it, or how the change would shape our economy.

  10. Hi, Janis – Awesome post! It gave me a wonderful trip down memory lane….back to the days of weekend shopping in downtown Windsor with my mom and sister (and yes, the department store lunch afterwards). When I first began reading your post, I was a bit hopeful that the upside was that people are now buying less–but when I looked on line–no such luck. What I did see on- line was pretty staggering statistics of on-line shopping going from 5.9% of total retails sales in 2014 to 7.4% this year ($1.67 trillion) to an estimated 12.4% in 2019. Hopefully the readers who predicted a return of the neighbourhood stores are correct!

    1. It started with seeing the (sort-of creepy) crowd of mannequins, along with a bunch of other retail paraphernalia (rounders, cabinets, displays, etc.) they had for sale, but, after doing a bit of research, I discovered that these “Ghost Boxes” and “Dead Malls” are actually a thing (there is even a website and Facebook page). It is so interesting to look at how different generations and new technology shapes society and how something that was a recognized part of life to one age group can completely disappear a generation later. I don’t think shopping will go away anytime soon, but how we do it certainly is changing… and fast.

  11. I too remember the big independent department stores from my youth and the thrill of ordering in one of their restauarants – it had a pond with goldfish which impressed me hugely. Now it’s all chains. I don’t visit out of town malls very often, though we have a couple of big ones. One has almost killed off the town centre where my mum lives. I prefer real streets – and I can’t buy anything without trying it on as sizes vary so much, especially for shoes for my wonky feet. Still hate shopping though!

    1. I guess what goes around, comes around. Just like the malls negatively affected the vitality of town centers – and large bookstore chains killed the mom and pops – technology is now hurting the mega-stores. I do some online shopping too, but there are some things I couldn’t imagine buying without first trying them on.

  12. I remember walking downtown the day after Thanksgiving to see all the beautiful Christmas window and counter displays. Now, Christmas decorations go up in September. Maybe not in our lifetime but in our children’s, people will probably just sit with their electronic devices in hand and conduct life.

  13. Great post! I’m not a huge fan of on-line shopping, and only do it when I have to. I prefer to be able to touch and look at the merchandise first, to determine the quality and true color. And if I’m buying clothes, then I want to try it on first. I understand the convenience of on-line shopping, but it is killing our communities as the brick and mortar stores go out of business and downtowns fade away. Even the malls provided a gathering place for people, and now they are going away as well. I think we are becoming too isolated in real life, and soon our sense of community isn’t going to extend beyond the computer screen.

    1. Sometimes I wish I could time travel. I’m so interested to see what society will look like, say, 50 years from now. Even 10 or 20 years (I hope I’m at least around for that) could bring huge changes – and probably not all good ones. I’m with you about seeing and touching fabrics and trying things on first, but I wonder if that’s as true for younger generations.

  14. Your post had me thinking of small, square patent leather purses and long-sleeved gloves. I am a bit guilty of the on-line shopping trend, but old-time dress-up shopping never really got its hooks into me in adulthood. Here’s another anachronism: that fuzzy screen on the TV when there was nothing going on!

    1. Ugh… I hate to think of myself as a living, breathing anachronism, but maybe I am. Funny story: several years ago I was talking to a co-worker who was many years younger than me and somehow got on the subject of record albums. She looked puzzled at first, then said, “Oh, you mean those really big CDs?” Of course, even CDs are becoming a thing of the past now.

      1. Hah! I wonder why the word ‘album’ has hopped generations, but the word ‘record’ hasn’t. PS – don’t get me started on the old sewing machines with the fast-slow level that you pushed with your knee. Wow.

  15. What an interesting story you tell in words and images. I can’t say that I’m sad to see the demise of shopping malls, but the death of “downtown” really changed the ways towns and cities operate, and it’s sad.

    So many communities are fighting to rebuild their city centres, trying to make them safe, vibrant places for people to visit and live.

    During my travels in New Zealand, this winter, I have been struck by the main streets in towns and cities. There are independent retailers, restaurants, and cafes. There are vehicles and people! Of course, there are some shopping malls, but they don’t seem to have taken over as they did in North America.

    I can’t help but wonder if these busy down town areas will be able to withstand online shopping better than the giant retailers. I suppose only time will tell.

    1. Our city has been pretty successful rebuilding our downtown area so that now it is full of restaurants and places to shop. Most likely, though the demographics of those who congregate there versus those who go to the mall are different (this Baby Boomer who doesn’t shop much wants the convenience of getting in and out). I think the hope is that “offline” shopping will become more of an experience so that it will encourage people to come out from behind their electronic devices. It will be interesting to see what happens.

      New Zealand is definitely on my list!

  16. I love to shop and I admit to being a mall rat, but in the various malls I frequent, I can see the effects of what you’re talking about. More and more store space is being taken up by low-end, discount stores, both big and small.

    Last week I was at my local Sephora store and they didn’t have what I needed. I went to Sephora online and voila! It was delivered to my house the next morning! What do you think the chances are that I will order what I need online the next time?

    1. It’s interesting how some malls flourish and others fail. The Macy’s that is closing is located at one of those malls that slowly became what you describe – full of low-end and discount stores. Another Macy’s, probably less than a mile away seems to be doing OK. Online shopping like you did with Sephora makes life so much easier – especially with overnight shipping. I used to buy a product from my hair gal, but then I found it online for MUCH cheaper. I feel a little bad about it, bit that’s where I buy it now.

  17. We had very few adventures into downtown Detroit to go shopping when I was young, doing shopping locally at Ward’s and Sear’s and Federal’s. The big department store downtown was J L Hudson where I had my first job. Then they opened Northland Mall – now closed- and then Eastland – struggling – where Hudson’s was the anchor store. Over the years it merged and became part of Macy’s. The original building was demo’d years ago. And now several Macy’s are closing around the area. Times have sure changed.

    1. It’s one thing when a single store goes out of business, but when a huge mall goes under, the community is left with a big, decaying hulk. I’ve read about efforts to re-purpose these structures into other things, like schools and even housing. The retail market is changing, and will continue to change… it’s hard to predict what form it will take as our habits as shoppers shift towards technology.

  18. I am afraid you are right, Janis about the sad state of our retail industry. Department stores were the epitome of experiences, stores designed to keep the shopper inside for hours! I, too, remember my grandmother taking me and my brother on a bus ride to downtown San Diego in the mid 60s, for a day of shopping in the big stores and having lunch–probably the Woolworth counter. She would also take us to College Grove mall back then too. When I was a teen, I saved my allowance and babysitting money and would walk or ride my bike to College Grove and shop at my favorite store to buy tee-shirts that cost $8-10. Back then we didn’t go to malls and stores that often except for special occasions like back-to-school and holiday shopping, so those were real treats. Now we can pop into Walmart or Target for something and buy eggs! Thanks for the walk down memory lane–hard to believe this IS almost a memory now!

  19. Janis, what a terrific melancholy post. Retail faced problems heading into the recession before the online buying took full hold. Developers overbuilt retail malls, so the recession caused many older malls to see more vacancies. Then the online buying hit and it has hastened the demise. Even Walmart is feeling the pressure and is going full bore in free delivery. Keith

    1. Over-building prior to the recession then a sea-change in buying habits – and who knows what’s next. .. oh, maybe same-day drone delivery. I guess the only thing that can be predicted is that nothing can be predicted, especially in the rapidly evolving world of technology, and how it will affect our lives.

  20. I remember driving from our little town to the big city to go shopping downtown in the fancy stores. We wore our Sunday best– and ate in the tea room. A tradition that makes no sense anymore. But back in the day, it was the done thing. Thanks for the reminder.

    1. I guess it makes no sense because we are all in such a hurry. Convenience is great, but there’s something to be said for slowing down and enjoying a less-harried pace. And, dressing up a little… you see people wearing all sorts of “outfits” at the malls – including pajamas.

      1. You’re right. Those shopping days were like a holiday that we savored. And the creamed chicken + peas over mashed potatoes served in the tea room was my little kid favorite. *yum*

  21. A fascinating walk down memory lane! I grew up in a remote northern Canadian small town. My mom shopped for all our school clothes by catalogue. We would pore over the pictures in the catalogue, picking our outfits, and it was such an exciting day when the parcel arrived! Even when the town grew and two small malls were built, there were limited choices. I was not an average size, so local shopping tended to be a frustrating experience. As an adult, I am not much of a recreational shopper.

    Jude

    1. Your mother was obviously ahead of her time! Now, catalogs have been replaced by the internet but the shopping experience is similar (except now the delivery is much quicker). I do very little recreational shopping now that I’m retired, but I did like to spend a few hours wondering around the mall when I was still working. It was less about the shopping, though, and more about the “me time” it gave me.

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