Murder or Mobile the Mall?

It’s January, the quiet month after the biggest retail season of the year, so it’s a good time to think about retail instead of just partaking in it. A pair of recent, but seemingly unrelated articles seems to be a good place to start.

The first is a report in The Atlantic that malls are being decimated by online retail. This is funny because when the modern mall started to become popular in the mid-20th century or so, it was accused of killing off mom-and-pop retail. So it’s like those cartoons where the big fish that eats a smaller fish is in turn eaten by an even larger fish.

The piece quotes the Wall Street Journal:

Green Street Advisor, an analysis firm that tracks REITs, has forecast that 10 percent of the roughly 1,000 large malls in the U.S. will fail within the next 10 years and be converted into something with far less retail. That’s a conservative estimate; many mall CEOs predict the attrition rate will be higher.

The article then goes on to reference deadmalls.com, a cool site that chronicles abandoned malls across the country. Lots of great pics of suburban decay.

So nothing too revelatory there, other than the perspective of it. But the second article, from Business Insider, is about retailers who are embracing mobile as a way to avoid being “showroomed.” That’s when somebody comes to experience the physical product and then orders it online on their phone from a cheaper online retailer. It’s one of the murder weapons used for killing brick-and-mortar retail.

Now stick with me, and we’ll see how these two trends intersect.

To me, the solution to the death of the mall (assuming that’s something we want to save), comes back to the idea of experience. I grew up a mallrat. It was less a retail chore for me than a wonderland of arcades and wares and foods and seasonal displays. To this day, I’ll go to the mall even if I don’t plan on purchasing anything, just to take in the ambiance.

And, of course, when I do that, I often buy something anyway.

There’s a pair of furniture stores here in Massachusetts called Jordan’s. Everybody in New England knows about Jordan’s. That’s because the owner, a bespectacled man with a gray beard and long gray hair pulled neatly back who does his own commercials, has created an experience around his stores. The one I go to regularly has an iMAX, a Fuddruckers, a water fountain show, a trapeze attraction, and various other spectacles…all to sell furniture, a retail item extremely vulnerable to being showroomed.

But there are always tons of people at Jordan’s, and, naturally, they’re all shunted through two floors of furniture as they go catch a flick or get something to eat. As a result, it’s the first place you think of when you need a new couch and maybe even the place where you first realize you need one.

So the experience trumps the wares even as they help sell them. And, of course, in today’s mobile culture, the fullest, most compelling experience has some sort of mobile component. We’re going to pull out our smartphones anyway, so we might as well be encouraged to do it in a way that enhances the experience of wherever we happen to be. In turn, it can help the retail establishment, which becomes such an integral part of the experience that there’s no reason for the customer to bring in some random discount online retailer.

And doing so could go a long way for malls to avoid being showcased on deadmalls.com.

Photo Credit: Andrea, Flickr