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Internet Sales Threaten Shopping Mall Culture


For decades, the mall has been an icon of American life. I remember hanging out there for hours in high school. But the traditional shopping mall as we know it is beginning to show its age. Online and mobile shopping have changed consumer habits. Big department stores like Sears and JCPenney have struggled. And it's made it hard for malls to justify, even maintain, their prominent place in our retail lives.

Over the next couple weeks, in conjunction with Youth Radio, we're going to look at the past, present and future of America's malls. And we begin in the suburbs of Detroit with NPR's Sonari Glinton.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: If you want to talk about the shopping mall, there are two things you have to talk about - the car and Detroit. And I figured what better place to do that than here at the Henry Ford Museum just outside of Detroit in Dearborn, Michigan? I'm meeting up with Matt Anderson. He's a curator here. Hey, Matt.

MATT ANDERSON: How are you doing? Nice to meet you.

GLINTON: I'm doing all right. So where are you going to take me?

ANDERSON: We're going to go into the museum and show you our Driving America exhibit where we talk about the mall in that context.

GLINTON: One of the exhibits that Anderson is responsible for is the Driving America exhibit. It looks at the automobile and the car's effect on our lives. As we walk around, we come to a place where they explore how the automobile changes and adapts to the needs of families and vice versa. There's everything from a Packard to a 1980s minivan.

ANDERSON: Detroit is kind of a case study of how the city is reshaped by the automobile. So you see things you might expect, like interstate highways being driven through towns, jobs moving to the suburbs and then shopping malls. Northland is the classic example.

GLINTON: Northland is one of the first shopping malls. It opened in 1954. It was started as an outdoor shopping center and later became an enclosed mall. It was built by the Hudson's department store, and it created a sensation when it was opened. Anderson says when you think about cars and life in America, you eventually have to ponder the shopping mall.

ANDERSON: The mall is a big deal. It's a big, big changing point. And it's arguably one of the most demonstrable effects of the automobile on our culture and our way of life.

GLINTON: It was with this mall that shopping and retail adapted to the automobile. Instead of heading inward on street cars and trains to the city's central business district, drive out to the mall that's probably in a suburb near you. 1954, when Northland Mall was built, represents the moment of change for Detroit.

In the 1950s, the city's population was at its height, and Anderson says with the building of that mall, it was like the storm crew - the harbinger of doom for downtowns everywhere, especially Detroit's. And he says it also represents one of the central ironies of Detroit.

ANDERSON: There's something very ironic about it. The car built Detroit and then it sort of tore apart Detroit, if that makes sense. As people drive out to the suburbs to the shopping malls to do their shopping there, the central business districts of cities all around the U.S. start to crumble. Businesses close 'cause they can't compete. The big chain department stores that traditionally anchor downtowns, they move out to the malls and follow the money.

GLINTON: Anderson says a further irony is that the Internet is making the car and the mall less central to our lives today. After visiting the museum, it's a short drive to the Northland mall - a few miles away in Southfield, Michigan.

What's remarkable about Northland is how unremarkable it is. It has the same troubles that middle-tier malls are facing across the country. Traffic is down. The giant five-level Macy's department store where the Hudson's one stood before - now whole floors are closed off, and it's a shell of its former grand self. But that's today. Sixty years ago, things were very different.

MICHAEL HAUSER: People were hoping that it would be successful, but nobody dreamed that it would be as wildly successful as it was.

GLINTON: Michael Hauser is a Detroit historian. He's written a couple books about Hudson's. We sat in the parking lot of the Northland mall on a summer day, and he describes how new-age the mall felt when opened 60 years ago.

HAUSER: Some people waited in line for hours to get into the parking lots here, despite the fact that they held 7,500 cars. Buses were packed. You know, it was something that nobody had ever experienced before.

GLINTON: And the moment people realized they didn't have to go all the way downtown to shop, it essentially stopped. 1954 was a peak year for sales receipts in downtown Detroit. Things would never be as good downtown as before the malls. And the problems of Northland are typical of problems that malls have all around the country.

HAUSER: With a shrunken Hudson's store - now a Macy's store - and with the lack of national retailers - stores like Montgomery Ward, T.J.Maxx, JCPenney gone - you don't have that traffic to feed off of.

GLINTON: As I stand here looking at the acres of parking at the Northland mall, it's hard to realize how big of a deal this mall was. What's interesting about this mall is that it changed, fundamentally, the way we live our lives and do business. And now the Internet is doing to the mall what the mall did to downtowns. Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Southfield, Michigan.

GREENE: And as we mentioned, our series on shopping malls is being produced in conjunction with Youth Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.
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