Thursday, April 16, 2009

Going to the mall?

Today's dose of grim economic trivia:
Enclosed shopping centers, long the cathedrals of American consumerism, are closing their doors by the hundreds as the recession continues to clobber retail sales. Is America’s love affair with the mall over?

Are malls dying?

The vital signs are not good. Even before the recession hit, consumers had developed mall fatigue, and the classic enclosed shopping mall was in decline. More than 400 of the 2,000 largest malls in the U.S. have closed in the past two years. The last new major mall in the U.S. opened in 2006, and only one big mall is scheduled to open this year—the troubled Xanadu mega-mall in Rutherford, N.J. (See below.) With some 150,000 retail stores projected to fail in the U.S. this year, more mall closings are imminent. Mall mainstays such as Mervyn’s department stores, Linens ’n Things, and KB Toys have already disappeared into bankruptcy, and mall vacancy rates topped 7 percent last year, the highest level since 2001. “It’s an absolute disaster,” says Howard Davidowitz, an investment banker specializing in retailers. “What a mall represents is discretionary spending, and discretionary spending is in a depression.” [emphasis added]

Is it really that bleak?

The data suggests that it is. For decades, American consumers could always be counted on to spend more than they did the year before—the only question was, by how much. But in the past 12 months, retail sales in the U.S. have dropped an unprecedented 9.8 percent. The economic collapse has landed especially heavily on the old-line department stores, such as Sears and JCPenney, that anchor many malls. As their sales and profits have tanked, they’ve been pulling out of malls, to the distress of the smaller merchants that depend on the larger stores to feed them traffic. The Turfland Mall in Lexington, Ky., recently lost Dillard’s as an anchor tenant, setting off a cascade of closings. “We have no choice but to leave now that Dillard’s is leaving,” says Bill Parker, who just closed his shoe store.
What happens when a mall dies?

It can devastate the surrounding community. The mall’s site can rapidly turn into a wasteland of overgrown weeds, cracked concrete, and stray animals, with looters picking sites clean of copper tubing, light fixtures, and anything else that can be sold for scrap. When the Riverside Center in Utica, N.Y., closed around Christmas 2007, its owner didn’t even bother to take down the holiday display. The following July, says Peter Blackbird of, the roof sprang a leak that drenched the display’s cotton “snow,” which quickly “turned into mold stew.” The fallout goes beyond aesthetics, of course. When a mall closes, unemployment rolls in the region swell, and the loss of property, sales, and business taxes can leave municipalities with serious shortfalls. The city of North Randall, Ohio, is nearly bankrupt following the closing late last year of the Randall Park Mall, once the largest mall in the Cleveland area. “It could simply cease to exist as a city,” says Cuyahoga County Commissioner Peter Jones. ...

Read the article here. The vicious circle of deleveraging continues. Deleveraging is obviously necessary, as our collective spending was unsustainable. The economic pain, however, will be intense, and unavoidable.

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