Five Reasons Why the American Mall is Dying

The Esplanade Mall in Kenner, Louisiana as photographed in 1988 (and which is now closed.)
Photo via @the_80s_interior on Instagram.

For some reason, I love looking at old photos of shopping malls. Maybe it's because as a '70s and '80s kid, I remember how much fun it was going to the mall back in the day. 

I remember my mom taking me to see the Sesame Street characters at a local mall where I gave Big Bird a hug. I loved riding the escalators and making a wish as I tossed a penny into one of the bubbling fountains flanked by fake trees. 

When I got older, the mall was always a fun and relatively safe place to get dropped off at and explore with my friends. If we were lucky, it contained a movie theater, arcade, or ice cream shop. A music store or Spencer's was the icing on the cake. 

Today, it's safe to say the writing seems to be on the wall for the American mall. I recently witnessed it first-hand. 

My sister and I visited a local mall neither of us had been to in several years. Actually, it was one I used to work next door to nearly a decade ago and was always busy at that time, even when it wasn't holiday season. So you could imagine my surprise to see barely any cars in the parking lot, despite arriving an hour after opening. 

We were there to go to Macy's—now one of only two department stores left at this shopping destination—with the sole purpose of finding jeans (for me) and sneakers (for her.) 

In the past I'd been satisfied with the selection of denim in the Macy's at this mall. However, this time neither of us found what we were looking for. The stock seemed very limited and prices were high, despite a "friends and family sale" taking place. No surprise, there were barely any other shoppers present and many of the departments seemed short on employees. 

What was once a bustling place just a few years ago now felt like a ghost town. 

We were only there for about 45 minutes before we cut our losses and decided to head over to the nearby Marshalls—where we found what we were looking for and more. We didn't feel like exploring any of the other stores. 

The decline of the American mall is hardly earth shattering news; the media has been touching upon it for years. But I suppose this was the first time I noticed the dip in customers and lackluster selection of clothing. 

How Many Malls Are Left in the U.S.? 

Malls in the U.S. reached their peak by the 1990s and were more than just places to shop. They also served as entertainment and socializing destinations. If you needed a place to hang out, the mall served that purpose for young and old alike.

In the 1980s there were about 2,500 malls across the country. Today, that number has dropped to 700 and many sources are predicting that within a decade there may only be about 150 malls left in the U.S. 

Once a mall closes due to the lack of shoppers and retailers filling the space it's declared a "dead mall" and usually left to slowly decay unless a developer decides to convert it into housing or commercial space. Here's a video tour of a dead mall that closed for good partly because of COVID, and partly because of mis-management. It's eerie to see merchandise still left behind among the disheveled store displays. 

Unfortunately, this may become a more common sight in the future. The way I see it, there are five major reasons why malls have fallen out of favor with consumers: 

1. Online Shopping

Hardly surprising, but once the internet and online shopping came along it signaled a warning to physical storefronts. Shopping online is convenient and you can often find a better selection of clothing and footwear in your size versus at an actual store. There are also no lines to wait in, no traffic and lack of parking spaces to deal with, and shipping is often free depending upon the retailer and the amount you buy. 

Shopping in person does have its perks—you can try on something right away and determine if it's right for you, and you get to bring your purchase home right away. And if you need a salesperson's advice, some stores are happy to help. But overall, it's tough to beat the convenience of buying what you need in just a few clicks. 

Meet me at the fountain and we'll walk to Sears together.
Photo credit Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress

2. Death of the Department Store

In the past few years department stores such as Sears, Filene's, and Lord&Taylor that were once retail giants have now shuttered several locations or ceased business operations completely. 

Why should this matter? Because many of these stores were considered "anchors" and their doors served as additional entrances to the mall for customers to find their way to other stores. And if another store fails to fill the space, it's another reason not to visit that mall. 

3. Lack of Customer Service/Employees

I know first-hand how tough it is for retailers to hire and retain good employees. It's a poor paying industry—you're lucky if you can find an entry level retail job that pays above minimum wage—and is best suited for people that don't mind being on their feet for several hours a day. 

Even before the pandemic, retail employers were struggling to hire staff and that's probably never going to change unless the industry can pay better and treat employees more fairly. There's a serious lack of employees to open and close stores at mall locations and run them efficiently, which causes customers to go online or to another location. 

Ice skating rink at the now vacant Eastland Mall in Charlotte, NC. Photo from Axis Charlotte.

4. Better Entertainment Options Elsewhere 

In the past the mall offered up movie theaters, arcades, merry-go-rounds, ice skating rinks, and other attractions to keep kids and teens entertained for hours. Today, many such venues have shut down and parents take their kids elsewhere to let them burn off energy. 

5. Inflation

Lastly, inflation is deterring a lot of people from shopping at malls where the prices are often higher. Hence, one reason why my sister and I went to Marshall's where you can find slightly imperfect items from decent brands for a fraction of the price seen in malls. I scored a great fitting pair of Lucky Brand jeans for $35 which is comparable to paying $100 for them in Macy's. 

How Malls Are Evolving

Some malls are not dying—rather, they're evolving into mixed used/outdoor spaces. However, any "mall" where you're required to walk around outside to get from store to store isn't the definition of a true mall in my opinion. A mall to me should always be enclosed so you don't have to worry about browsing several stores without dealing with the weather. Otherwise, it's a shopping plaza. 

Do you think malls will go the way of the Dodo bird? Let me know in the comments!


  1. Two very well known established malls in the Valley of the Sun have recently closed, one was razed to put in condos. The mall nearest me (Arrowhead) is full of knockoffs and specialty stores that most people might look through but not spend their money there. You are correct, online shopping has eliminated the need for a brick and mortar store and lowered the cost of doing business. Sears waited too late to try it and Amazon slit their throats and mounted their head as well as a good many others. Covid killed the movie theater, you can watch first run movies at home and pause it if you need to take a bathroom break and you're not paying exorbitant prices for snacks and drinks. I will still go for certain movies, there's no replacing a giant screen to watch Tom Cruise flying F-18's, but the cost has become prohibitive, inflation hitting every industry. It's sad to see the change, but it will take someone with more insight than we have to restore it, if ever.

    1. Funny you mention movie theaters, because I wrote this post before covid about why I barely go to the movies anymore. And the last film I did see in theaters was Top Gun: Maverick!

  2. I wasn’t really a mallrat growing up. When I went to the mall, it’d be for a specific purpose: to buy new clothes, or a record, or to go to a movie or to the arcade. Only rarely would I go to hang out.

    A few years ago, Modells went out of business. That was my go-to place for clothes and shoes. I kinda panicked. I searched all over for someplace new. I don’t like shopping for clothes online, because how do you know for sure if something fits? When a friend bought me sneakers as a birthday present, she wasn’t sure if she got the right size, even though I told her what I normally wear.

    I think if malls are to survive, they need a new purpose, to provide something more than just a convenient place to shop.

    1. And many are indeed doing just that. Adding more restaurants, creating an outdoor space, hosting special events and activities for families, etc.

  3. We have one mall left in Austin. Sure there are strip malls. When I hear of someone going in with a gun, even in another state, I don't want to go anymore.


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