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With the rise in online shopping, fewer people are going to the mall these days, turning once bustling centres into ghost gallerias. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
With the rise in online shopping, fewer people are going to the mall these days, turning once bustling centres into ghost gallerias. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Leah McLaren: As malls die, so too does a way of life Add to ...

Canadians love malls. Of course we do. We’ve got a stable economy, a mostly miserable climate, an aversion to walking anywhere we could drive and an insatiable appetite for Cinnabon. It’s a match made in an April blizzard.

But the sad reality is, these are hard times for the gallerias and indoor fountains of our youth. Once seen as the insidious consumer scourge of the suburbs, the soulless retail equivalent of urban sprawl, the mall as we know it is now deeply under threat.

In the United States, the situation is truly dire. As Americans abandon indoor retail meccas in droves for the irresistible allure of online shopping (one click, baby!), malls are keeling over like the hypothermic dinosaurs lumbering into the ice age.

Instead of neat skeletons, what they are leaving behind is millions of square feet of hollowed-out retail space – a mass epidemic of spooky “zombie malls” that will indelibly change the landscape of suburban America forever.

If you want sickening proof, check out the blog deadmalls.com in which self-described “retail historians” Peter Blackbird and Brian Florence provide a comprehensive state-by-state breakdown of all the mighty-but-fallen retail monoliths now littering the American landscape.

It’s as fascinating as it is depressing. For example: “The Omni International Mall of Miami was perhaps one of the most unique megastructures in the U.S. completed in the late 1970s … today the mall space is still empty, all gutted out to make way for failed business-space ideas that never got off the ground.” And so on.

And yet, I remember when malls had a bad reputation, and were touted as the end of civilization. Growing up in small-town Ontario in the 1980s, we blamed the new suburban shopping centre for killing our quaint Victorian main street (not that it stopped us from going there – they had a Gap!).

But as today’s malls close, they take millions of jobs with them, as well as vital community meeting spaces. Over all, U.S. department stores alone employ a third less people than they did at the beginning of the century. With big box “anchor stores,” such as Macy’s and Sears closing, the writing is on the wall.

Soon enough, the great American mall will be entirely extinct – replaced by vast private warehouses and delivery depots for online retailers like Amazon. Or maybe only Amazon.

Malls in Canada do seem much better off – especially the fancy upscale ones in big cities. An analysis earlier this year from the Retail Council of Canada showed that Canadian malls were reporting significantly higher sales per square foot annually than malls in the US over all.

But these good news figures don’t tell the whole story. Being Canadian, we’re not going to change our habits overnight – why we’re a constitutional monarchy, not a republic – but that doesn’t mean things aren’t changing, particularly in small towns and suburban outposts.

According to a report late last year by the commercial real estate agency Colliers, online shopping sales growth can be blamed for vacancy of roughly 14.8 million square feet of mall space between 2012 and 2014. If current trends continue, the centre cannot hold.

At present, Canadian malls are doing okay because Canada is behind the curve when it comes to online shopping. While Amazon is now the No. 1 apparel retailer in the U.S and online sales account for between 10 to 12 per cent of overall sales, in Canada we’re still at about 6 per cent. But that’s up from 4 per cent two years ago. I suppose it’s possible this whole online shopping thing could be a silly fad that blows over in a few years, but that’s what we thought about e-mail back in the 1990s.

What amazes me most about the eventual (if not imminent) death of malls is the way creative destruction changes the way we view cultural institutions. Things like television and shopping malls are magically transformed, almost overnight, from cultural evils to objects of intense nostalgia.

In my hometown, the main street did suffer for a few years after the mall showed up. But then the town grew more prosperous and managed to regenerate its waterfront, pulling in tourists and plenty of new small businesses as well. Today the downtown strip is booming again and it’s the mall that’s suffering – judging by the number of vacancies.

Watching TV and hanging out at the shopping centre were the two things my parents nagged me incessantly not to do. Now the idea of my own future teenagers chatting in person with their friends at an Orange Julius followed by a sitcom-viewing sounds so spectacularly wholesome it’s like the 2017 equivalent of a square-dancing competition.

So which is it: Were malls actually not so bad to begin with or are we just predisposed to miss all the things that capitalism destroys in its wake? Are we hopelessly nostalgic or just a culture of unrepentant complainers?

It’s unclear. But I do know this: When all the malls are dead and gone, we’ll still have Cinnabon. Even if we have to order it via an app for drone delivery.

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Follow on Twitter: @leahmclaren

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