The rise of Amazon has led to a split between thriving and struggling malls

Key Points
  • The past decade has spawned a division between the haves and have-nots of U.S. malls.
  • The better mall owners have been finding new tenants to bring in new shoppers.
  • Struggling malls are ultimately expected to go dark and sit vacant or find life as another use.
Shoppers walk through the food court at the Easton Town Center Mall in Columbus, Ohio.
Luke Sharrett | Bloomberg | Getty Images

These days, in the country's most upscale malls, it seems like shoppers are doing everything but perusing apparel.

Consumers can play glow-in-the-dark mini golf at Simon Property Group's Roosevelt Field in Garden City, New York, see a concert at the outdoor plaza at Macerich's Tysons Corner Center in Virginia and go to the Equinox gym at Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield's Century City in Los Angeles.

That's a far cry from the malls that bring in lower sales per square foot. For instance, retailers ranging from J.C. Penney to Sears have left Macon Mall in Macon, Georgia, in recent years, leaving the mall with few national apparel chains. Restaurant offerings are also limited: They include Chinese food, a deli and the Ole Times Country Buffet.

The past decade has spawned a division between the haves and have-nots of U.S. malls. In the last 10 years, more consumers shifted their purchasing to Amazon from brick-and-mortar retailers. RadioShack, Toys R Us and Sears went bankrupt. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of stores have gone dark as retailers seek to cut costs.

That has had a lasting and in some cases detrimental impact on America's shopping malls. While the vacancy rate at regional and super regional malls, which typically have at minimum 400,000 square feet of gross leaseable area and two anchor tenants, recovered in the years following the financial crisis, it has been rising since 2017. The vacancy rate was 9.4% in the third quarter of this year, up from 8.3% two years ago, data from Moody's Analytics Reis show.

"Over the past 10 years ... we have seen the heightened value and improvement of the best centers, and a substantial deterioration of everything else," mall owner Taubman COO Bill Taubman said. "What was good is even better, and what is not good has gotten much worse."

'The original portal'

In 2010, malls were often where teenagers would hang out on weekends, and moms and dads would spend hours ahead of the holidays scouring for gifts. It was the cool place to grab a bite and check out the sales at your favorite stores. Maybe, sometimes, you would catch a movie at the mall after work.

"The mall was the original portal before Google," Taubman said. "It was where you had this collection of brands where you could search from within."

Since then, e-commerce's ascent has pushed retailers to shrink their bricks-and-mortar locations, with more goods being purchases online. E-commerce sales have grown as a portion of total retail sales in the U.S. to roughly 12% in 2019 from about half that in 2010, according to an analysis by consulting firm A.T. Kearney. They're predicted to jump to 32%, or a third of all U.S. retail sales, by 2030.

There was a period of time, prior to the Great Recession, when companies were seemingly rewarded for opening more stores. The number of stores a retailer operated was viewed as a sign, good or bad, of success. And real estate developers, with access to cheap land, were building plenty of new developments for them to file into. It was hard for retailers to say no to a shiny new store in the mall.

That growth slowed, however, when the economy turned south, and consumers tightened up their wallets into 2008 and 2009.

But in 2010, the negative sentiment had largely rebounded, and people were out shopping again.

"2010 was a very good time. ... I would say everyone started to feel a little bit better about themselves," said Greg Maloney, CEO and president of commercial real estate services firm JLL's retail team.

It was clear, however, that people weren't going to be shopping at the same places.

Apple's iPhone, which hit shelves for the first time in 2007, gave people easier access to the internet, so they increasingly bypassed stores and ordered from the sofa or used their devices in stores to find the same product online for a cheaper price. And consumers who came out of the recession with a tighter grip on their wallets opted for discounters like Walmart, Target and TJ Maxx. They weren't going to traditional malls like they used to.

The real malaise for mall operators set in around 2015 and 2016 as department store operators' struggles were becoming clearer. Retailers like Macy's and Sears had long been considered the anchor tenants at malls. Everything else — like Victoria's Secret, Sbarro pizza, Auntie Anne's pretzels and Build A Bear Workshops — filled in the middle. Department stores, which can span upwards of 100,000 square feet per location, were long tasked with driving traffic and pulling shoppers in from the outside. Their logos were the ones plastered outside malls.

A man walks past a Macy's department store in Washington, DC.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds | AFP | Getty Images

"As the sales started to reduce in the department stores, [department stores] couldn't react fast enough," Maloney said. "People started to say, 'I don't need to go to the mall anymore.'"

"A lot of people saw [this was happening]," Maloney added. "But there wasn't really anything we could do."

In August 2016, Macy's announced it was going to close 100 locations, with the company looking to turn around its poor performance. And J.C. Penney in February 2017 said it would be closing up to 140 locations in the spring, or roughly 14% of the company's locations, as sales continued to fall. Sears' troubles were also intensifying.

Those were three massive blows to the industry and to malls. And analysts say that's about the time when chatter around a "retail apocalypse" started to build.

"I remember Macy's [store closure announcement] like it was yesterday," mall owner Preit CEO Joe Coradino said. "We all concluded that malls needed to be something different than they were. ... You look back over the past 10 years and you see a mall that was your grandmother's mall — a place to buy tops and bottoms."

Store closures announced by retailers have only piled up over the years, despite some companies continuing to open up. 2019 has already seen a record number of more than 9,300 store closures announced by retailers, according to a tracking by Coresight Research, which has been monitoring the metric since 2012.

Haves and have-nots

With all the store closures and changing traffic patterns, mall operators have had to react or risk losing relevancy. And while some have tried to stay ahead of the bad news, others are clearly falling behind.

Within the roughly 1,110 malls in the U.S., 80% of "mall value" is at properties rated A- to A++, Green Street says. That's where the sales are happening. Those malls are considered to be the dominant centers in their respective markets, with either luxury or high-end tenants surrounded by shoppers ready to spend. They also see a good number of tourists.

People walk through the Shops at Hudson Yards during a preview event on March 14, 2019 in New York City.
Gary Hershorn | Corbis News | Getty Images

The trouble, however, is at the so-called C- and D-rated shopping malls, which bring in lower sales per square foot. Those are the ones that are ultimately expected to go dark and either sit vacant or find life as another use.

Some are already being converted into warehouses. Others are housing medical offices, churches and community colleges.

Amazon has already moved into a new distribution facility where Randall Park Mall used to sit in North Randall, Ohio. It is also taking over Euclid Square Mall in Euclid, Ohio.

Most shoppers, if they're going to venture out to a mall today, want to go to the best mall.

"I think right now there is a huge abyss between the haves and the have-nots," said Mark Toro, a managing partner in Atlanta of real estate developer North American Properties. "Right now the fortress mall is going to outperform all the others."

In the latter half of the decade, the better mall owners have been finding new tenants: They realize they didn't need so many apparel stores but needed more dining, entertainment and other experience options. Basically, they need to offer consumers a reason to visit their properties that can't be found on the internet.

Mall owners should be bringing "anything but apparel" to their centers, said Tom Dobrowski, vice chairman with real estate services firm Newmark Knight Frank's Capital Markets group. "We are seeing more mall owners get more creative than they've ever been in terms of finding uses to come into vacant spaces."

Apparel retailers used to make up as much as 60% of leaseable square footage at a traditional shopping mall. But today that can fall closer to 25% at some properties.

Meanwhile, the amenities at high-end malls are getting flashier and fancier. Triple Five Group's American Dream megamall in New Jersey offers up indoor ski slopes, while Preit's Fashion District complex in Philadelphia boasts a Candytopia, billed on its website as an interactive experience "where colossal candyfloss constructions meld with a tantalizing taffy twistedness."

A shopper walks through a near-empty shopping mall.
Source: Getty Images

Even Macy's called out this bifurcation trend more recently, saying its stores at higher-quality malls are still strong, while visits have been falling off at weaker locations.

"Where we're investing and our mall developers are investing, we're getting great outcomes," Macy's CEO Jeff Gennette said during a post-earnings conference call with analysts in November.

Malls adding virtual reality experiences to boost foot traffic
Malls adding virtual reality experiences to boost foot traffic