The development that is the mall has been a marvel to watch over the last 7 decades. As the suburbs became a staple in our life, so did the mall. The mall made its appearance as June Cleaver and consumption’s sick deranged love child. Its presence in American life is apparent and its stigma dependent on the generation you ask. As the demise of the mall starts to gradually become a reality let us reminisce on its historical role in our society and explore why amazon has taken over.
With GDP per capita more than doubling every ten years from 1940 to 1960, the American population had an excess in funds never before seen. To put things in perspective Switzerland’s GDP per capita in 1950 was $200 dollars compared to America’s per capita income of $1,500 in the same period. War time production had our economy rolling at an all-time high and big government actually had the citizenry’s full-fledged support. We see that coming out of WWII America’s economy became much stronger relative to the rest of the world, but how did this increase in per capita income effect the family unit?
1950s: While all this was in motion, the baby boom generation started to take shape. People were marrying younger, and divorcing at lower rates. This exponential growth in salaries afforded many luxuries such as cars and physical capital used to invest and save. With the FHA just beginning to take effect, buying a house was easier now than ever before; for some. An extremely affluent society starts taking shape. No longer do people live where they work due to the convenience of the automobile. This detachment from the workplace and the community was key in what proceeds to come about. Rather than going out to the bar with coworkers or taking a stroll striking conversation with neighbors, the working man would drive his nice General Motors Cadillac right on home to his suburban residence. What is he to do now that he is home? Well of course he plops on the couch and tunes into the television. His wife who has no need to work due to her husband’s large salary, acts as caretaker of the home and children. In her role as caretaker of the home she must furnish the home and fill it to the brim with all the luxuries that come with the ridiculous amount of wealth enjoyed by the time period. This is not to downplay the tribulations of the average man nor to discredit their hard work but only to speak to the success America enjoyed and the purchasing power bestowed upon the average American. As the suburbs grew the expansion of the one stop shop spread throughout the country. In 1946 there were 8 malls throughout the United States, in 1954 there were 4,000. This novel experience was embraced by the country and contributed to the seclusion of life from work.
1960s- 1970s: A generation later we witness the first reaction of a group born into this hyper consumer society and notice some resistance. In the late 60s and 70s we see a distraught youth base who call suburbia home. Growing up alongside the Vietnam War we see a shift in the ideals of the youth who were depicted as radical anarchists when in reality they were dissidents of their parent’s ideologies and an informed populace. Nonetheless this depiction is insightful in understanding the trajectory of American life in the ensuing decades. It was now the norm to be highly materialistic and even radicals that dissented to the ways of their parents enjoyed music, movies and fashion trends of the time all consumed at the mall. What America effectively did was create a haven where socialization was possible all while consuming a variety of normal goods, i.e. high end fashion, luxury items, televisions etc.
1980s-1990s: Now if I sold you on the suburban boom of the 50s, the 80s leave them in the dust. Although race relations weren’t stable, the economy was in an era of great expansion. Frequently regarded as the Reagan Expansion, this time period saw an increase in the quality of living that surpassed even the suburban boom. This allowed the youth of this generation luxuries such as cars, allowances, and an influx of new age technology. The target audience for the mall began to broaden further and further having a bit of something for everyone. Video games for children, clothes and food courts for teenagers, and department store powerhouses for middle aged adults and seniors. When we study consumption behavior we realize that consumption of normal goods increase with a rise in income and is known as induced consumption. With now two generations being exposed to the mall it is now within our culture to spend time at this haven and is seen as an activity. More importantly it is seen as a family activity in the early stages of child rearing which helps the child form an association whether positive or negative in the early stages of their lives. In most cases the association is positive when trips result in the child obtaining a toy or game but can turn sour if the child conducts its own form of cost benefit analysis deciding staying home and watching 10 a.m. cartoons would have made for a better Saturday morning.
2000s: We now begin to see that cartoons are much cooler than long lines. Long gone are the days of joyous mall hangouts and family bonding. These are replaced by bustling shopping centers and tedious shopping errands. We start to see the trip to the mall as more of a hassle than an exciting adventure. It becomes stressful rather than relieving. Even babies take notice as we see the spawn of the cry baby movement sweeping the nation at alarming rates. This is no longer fun. As every other marvel in history, we get bored over time.
2010s: The age of convenience. If you look at the market today we see an oversaturation of quick fix start-ups with the sole purpose of making the rigors of day to day life easier. We work harder now than ever before and take less vacation time. With an overworked and busy populous and an increased attraction to urban centers, we no longer see the yearning for that consumer experience. Yes we are still creatures of consumption but we have begun to engage differently. With the added convenience of in hand technology such as smart phones, all your consumer needs are literally at your fingertips. You don’t have to set out time to go to the mall, find parking, deal with the snooty cashiers, or drag your infant to the family changing room. You can now get that Rubber Maid glass food storage 22 piece set for 29.98 shipped to you within two days at 2 a.m. if you so please to do so.
The death of the mall boils down to consumption behavior. People will follow the norm until a new and more efficient method comes along. As a tool for same day purchases mall trumps many but we see that this is not the norm in the purchase of normal goods. The added convenience of no physical energy being expended to go from the first floor to the second to check out furniture and kitchen appliances has sat well with Americans. Without the confines of operating hours and the luxury of larger inventory, amazon has the mall outmatched.