Posted by on 26th September 2017

A recent article in Time magazine entitled ‘The Death and Life of The Shopping Mall’ really haunted me. It’s a harrowing tale of the mass closure of retail stores and the shopping malls they inhabit across America. As an evangelist of online marketing and the looming e-commerce boom, I couldn’t help feeling responsible for the demise of our shopping malls and the lifestyle associated with mall life.

Due to a busy schedule I read the story in two parts, which is possibly why I was so haunted at first.  The closure of malls and stores across America is unprecedented. The loss of retail jobs has not been offset by the creation of online retailers.  What got me thinking was the realization that we have lost more than a convenient way to shop, we have lost a lifestyle. Whole families could go to the mall together and shop, eat and be entertained. You’d meet friends, go on dates, find a job and maybe even learn to drive in a quiet corner of the carpark on a Sunday afternoon. The internet age and all it provides – instant information, instant communication, online shopping, online dating, to name just some of its offerings – certainly has changed our lifestyles.

Now our kids don’t want to go to the mall.  In fact, neither do I.  I find the mindless wandering and the endless touching, feeling and talking about the wares on offer tiresome. I’d rather be home (with my family) watching a movie I just paid for and downloaded, while looking forward to the dinner we ordered via or one of those ‘we decide what you are eating this week and will supply the exact ingredients with simple to follow cooking instructions’ type of services.  My twelve year old son in his room playing a football game on Xbox with seven of his friends, who are also in their bedrooms at home. They chat and laugh and cajole just like they are on the field.  Except they are not.

By now the guilt of contributing to all that job loss, albeit in America, and eradication of the cornerstone of the Baby Boomer and Generation X lifestyle was getting to me.  Fortunately, the next day I started reading the rest of the Time article (the title of the article held a clue, it placed death before life).  It turns out, the biggest cause of the downturn of the retail shopping mall is in fact, economics. As we are experiencing now in South Africa, housing development is expanding at a relentless pace, so it was in the seventies, eighties and nineties in the United States.  Middle class families left the inner cities for the suburbs, seeking a better life for their children. Preceding this in anticipation of great revenues to come, was the local shopping mall. So began the mall boom. And after every boom comes some sort of bust, or ‘correction’ as economists like to call it. As we see in our country today, for every new ‘better’ mall that pops up, another stutters and coughs its way to a slow death, its ageing façade no longer the shining beacon it once was.

As the weight of the guilt lifts off my shoulders I begin thinking more clearly about the coming e-commerce boom again. We still have denialists about the influence of social media in brand building, customer engagement and even online sales. In the same way we have retailers and some marketers who still believe that consumers want to touch and feel products before they buy.  Whilst this might hold true for, I can’t think of a product right now, the convenience and the ability to instantly compare prices so you know you’ve got the best deal, far outweighs the touchy-feely stuff.  Add to this the ability to buy something from anywhere in the world, opens up so many new opportunities.  With very little investment in say, a Shopify site, your hand made earrings can go from being sold locally at a flea market stall to being bought by somebody halfway across the world.

But perhaps before we predict the demise of the physical retail shop, we need to remember that last point.  If we can buy goods from anywhere in the world online, what will make customers buy from a shop in a shopping mall or high street? I have two words for you; customer experience. Now here’s a few more words to explain what I mean: for as long as there has been a seller and a buyer, price plus convenience plus great service has always been the differentiator that brings customers through the door. So if my shopping experience is something I would want to repeat, why wouldn’t I?

And while we still have a lot of Baby Boomers roaming around malls and GenX are at the peak earning stage of their lives right now, we still need to cater for them.  It really isn’t a matter of either or, its more about offering both.  Those retailers that have physical stores and a great online shop centered around an excellent customer experience, stand the best chance of surviving the next onslaught. What might that be, I hear you ask?  I don’t know, let’s just call it the Internet of Things until we figure it out.