I love malls. I hate that they’re dying. I have a suggestion: Teitel
|Toronto Star 30 Jun 2017 at 02:58|
My soul is so suburban that when I visited the shopping mall of my youth last week (Hillcrest Mall in Richmond Hill), I nearly cried because of how much it had changed. Gone was the Mr. Sub, the Zellers, and, saddest of all, the General Store: an overpriced knick-knack shop that sold model cars and special items for left-handed people (my late Bubbie Shoshie called this the “crap store”; clearly she wasn’t the only one who felt this way).
Those who grew up in cities might be under the impression that every suburb and shopping mall is more or less the same. And perhaps to outsiders they are. But if you’re an insider — if you grew up, like I did, on a residential grid of cookie cutter houses — you don’t feel this way. In fact, it’s precisely because you weren’t spoiled with stuff to look at that you’re more attuned to the details of your environment. The sameness of the landscape sharpens your senses. As a result, you know your Indigo, your Silver City, your Kelseys restaurant and of course, your mall, like the back of your hand. (I could pick the Richmond Hill Indigo out of a lineup blindfolded.)
But no matter how well we know our suburban landmarks and defend their existence to our city-slicker friends, they are apparently not long for this world.
According to new research published by Credit Suisse, 20 to 25 per cent of all malls in the U.S. are projected to close by the year 2022. This month, Sears Canada, a mall mainstay, announced plans to close 59 stores , a move that will result in the elimination of nearly 3000 jobs.
Retail analyst Robert Warren says there are a few major contributing factors to the demise of the North American mall: the baby boomer demographic isn’t spending at malls as often as it once did, millennial consumers want more choice — which they can find online — and TV streaming gives us more reason than ever to stay home.
But there’s something else in the mall-decline mix too. And that’s the reality that at the vast majority of North American malls, there simply isn’t enough to do. Most western shopping centres are devoted almost exclusively to retail, which means if you aren’t buying clothes or renewing your criminally overpriced cellphone plan, you don’t have much reason to stick around after you’ve run your errands.
What’s more, it wasn’t just families with young children and teens using these amenities; they were popular with everybody, regardless of age. In East Asia, it became clear to me very quickly that there’s no shame in enjoying the recreational activities you loved as a kid well into adulthood.
Warren says Canadian shopping centres might benefit from the amusement model popular in Asian malls. He even notes that where West Edmonton Mall does well is on “the theme stuff.”
“(Asian) malls are different than ours in that they’ve turned them into entertainment locations,” Warren says. “I think with the massive population we’re (Canada) drawing in from Asia, if a mall operator started to do things like (adding more amusement) they’d draw those consumers in because it’s a bit of a touch of home for them.”
In my mind, the Asian mall model wouldn’t just attract new Canadians from Asian countries or tourists looking for a touch of home, but anyone looking for a variety of amusement in one place. Social media went wild this week with news that Cineplex opened the Rec Room in downtown Toronto — what is essentially a sprawling arcade for adults. Among the activities Torontonian millennials currently go nuts for: escape rooms, axe throwing, board game cafes and lining up for hours on Queen St. W. for something called “charcoal ice cream.”
All of these things point to the reality that millennial adults want to participate in recreational activities that don’t involve getting plastered and going to a bar or nightclub. Malls can use this desire for wholesome recreation to their advantage. Right now most of these activities are spread thin throughout the city and suburbs, often in repurposed warehouses. Why aren’t they at your local mall?
The suburban shopping centre is a town square. If you live in the suburbs, it’s where you go to see and be seen, especially in the wintertime, where the mall is pretty much the only public space you can go to and not freeze your butt off. For a lot of suburbanites, malls aren’t cultural dead zones. They’re meeting places, walking tracks and study spots. In other words, they’re hotbeds of culture. We can turn our noses up at them or we can save them. I say we save them, one arcade and board game cafe at a time. Hillcrest, I’m rooting for you.