The Mall of Shame
The Mall at Rockingham Park in Salem, NH is home to a million square feet of retail and contains 144 stores, restaurants, and kiosks. It’s by no means the nicest mall in the country, but as recently as 2015, it was the top-grossing property by square foot in the Simon Properties Group portfolio thanks to its role as a sales tax sanctuary on the border with Massachusetts. Middle-class staples like Williams & Sonoma, Coach, Lush, and an Apple store (along with the obligatory food court Sbarro) help account for $1.8B in annual sales.
But there’s an odd trend at work in this otherwise healthy-seeming cathedral of capitalism. Exquisitely fabricated sales fixtures are being replaced by slat board walls. Store logos that were once agonized over by creatives at Landor and Pentagram are being exchanged for signs pecked out in PowerPoint. Carefully staged photos of models are being replaced by a mélange of second-hand mannequins.
By my count 11 of the 108 storefronts (not counting restaurants and kiosks) are now filled by independent operators. There’s nothing wrong with mom and pop entrepreneurship, but many of the products in these stores seem to be dubiously sourced, the commitments of some, e.g. Christmas Town, are definitionally short, and the branding is banal. Currently, 10% of the storefronts are occupied by these independent brands, but one wonders what happens when this shrine to shopping begins to feel more like a swank swapmeet?
At what percent of “mom and pop” retail occupancy do malls, even successful ones like this, become unattractive destinations for the stores that are still driving the bulk of their sales?
Industry publications tell a story of a stabilizing industry that is swapping out Sears for more experiential offerings like spas. Hotels and even apartments are taking up some of the space vacated by vanishing retailers. But it’s fun to speculate what might pop up next to your favorite Cinnabon. Here are four questions I had during a visit to my local mall:
When do the mini-anchors leave?
At what point does Apple decide the foot traffic isn’t worth being smooshed between a threadbare leggings store and an emporium of questionably licensed sports paraphernalia?
How does Michael Kors feel about being placed next to a store that sells sheepskin (and alpaca) fur slippers? For Project Runway fans, it’s not hard to guess.
At what point will these higher-end stores decamp for “lifestyle centers” or other retail solutions? And if a few of the cash cows depart for greener pastures, does that kick off a death spiral? People argue that the shopping experience will limit the ultimate TAM for ecommerce, but if the high-end sheen wears off, why leave your couch?
Is this an opportunity for tech startups?
These operations lack the scale and sophistication of national retailers, but they need a point of sales tool, marketing support, and a bevy of other services. It’s likely Square and Shopify can fill the gap but are there new solutions optimized for small-scale, in-person retail that have yet to be developed? Maybe a few of these mini-brands will unlock the secret to thriving in a post-Amazon world and go national?
From fast times to golden years?
As the generation that grew up watching Fast Time at Ridgemont High enters its Golden Girls years, will we see malls become full-service recreation centers for seniors? They already use them as low-key gyms, maybe audiologists, orthopedic shoe, and CPAP vendors will start to fill these vacant storefronts to cater to this cohort of more mature mallrats? Whether its senior citizens or new parents, catering more completely to a specific demographic might be a way to compete against the “Everything Store.”
Will a new generation of retail emerge?
Perhaps this is just part of the circle of life and DNVBs will take advantage of dropping rents and help bring a little glamour back to home of the Orange Julius? Maybe the multi-level marketing companies take advantage of some of these spaces as showrooms which they can rent out to their associates? While some malls will inevitably close their doors forever, clever entrepreneurs are sure to find uses for these spaces.
What do you think will anchor malls over the next decade?
Joseph Flaherty is the Director of Content & Community at Founder Collective, a seed stage VC firm that has backed Uber, BuzzFeed, PillPack, SeatGeek, Cruise, HotelTonight, The Trade Desk, and many, many more excellent startups.