I just got back from an hour-and-a-half drive to the big city to pick up a few things at the mall that I couldn’t get delivered from Amazon. It was noon, and the giant parking lot was nearly empty.
Was it some national holiday that I’d forgotten about? Was there some special event going on at the other end of town today? Well, whatever -- I got to park near the entrance. It was a hot day, so the air conditioning was on full-blast, and yet the vast, wide-open central aisle was people-free, except for a guy washing the floor on a riding squeegee. All the usual mall stores were there and open for business, but the only people in them were employees folding T-shirts and dressing mannequins. The few cars I’d seen in the parking lot must have belonged to the workers. They used to tell employees to park as far away from the store as possible to leave room for customers. Now, they must tell them to park close to the entrance, so it looks as if someone is actually shopping inside.
I’m old enough to remember when the malls started killing off all the stores that used to be downtown. Lots of small-town business districts fought back, but easy parking, multiplexes and fun restaurants all in one convenient place sucked the customers away. Now, online shopping has battered the big “anchor stores” that bookend every mall, and the lack of traffic is killing the smaller specialty shops. There’s a website called DeadMalls.com where you can see pictures of these now-empty shopping centers, which were bustling and packed just a couple decades ago. Now, most of them make Chernobyl look like a garden spot.
I wonder how anyone stays in business. I’ve been to movies in the mall where there are only 10 people in the whole theater. And that’s on opening weekend for the latest “hit” movie. How can they even afford to pay for the air conditioning?
But there are still some stores doing bang-up business at the mall. The cellphone providers and the Apple store were jammed. I needed an appointment to get into the Apple store. Compared to the three-story, now-vacant Sears, the Apple store is tiny. You’d expect the place to be full of young people, and it was. Except they all worked there. Their staff looked like the student union at one of the many universities that wouldn’t let me in. The customers were much, much older. Half the men looked like Bernie Sanders. Half the women looked as if they’d just showered and changed after an invigorating Pilates or speed yoga class. You could have filmed one of those vitamin commercials for “active seniors” there.
The young man helping me had a slight German accent, and he fixed a problem with my phone that had stymied me for months in about 30 seconds. We chatted a little. He said he lived in a loft in what used to be a department store in the old, not-so-empty-anymore downtown, and rides his bike to the mall every day. He doesn’t own a car, and doesn’t want to. ”I use Uber if I need it,” he said.
I said, “I can’t believe what happened to Sears. We used to get their catalog, and it was the size of a phone book.”
Hans looked puzzled and said, “What’s a phone book?” Then he asked if he could tweak some other things on my phone for me. I walked out of there with my same old phone, but it worked better and faster than ever before. And it didn’t cost me a penny. So, naturally, I bought a new keyboard and a trackpad. Goodbye, $230.
On the way out, I passed an Ugly Shoe City and an Ugly T-Shirt City and a Too Hot To Eat Hot-Sauce City -- all ghost-town empty. I passed what I thought was a Victoria’s Secret, but it turned out to be a clothing store for tweens.
Who is buying this stuff? Then it hit me: No one.
It’s not Amazon that’s putting stores out of business -- it’s their business that’s putting them out of business.
(Contact Jim Mullen at email@example.com.)