I can’t say I ever thought that I would be nostalgic for the mall.
BANGOR, Maine- When I was a teenager and young 20-something I believed that I was somehow opposing corporate America by refusing to shop at the big box department stores and any other corporate chain. I felt that these businesses were destroying local-level production, innovation, and commerce, putting people like my dad out of work, and were leading us all on a global race to the bottom.
I could clearly envision a future that would be all big corporate stores but what I never considered at that time was that even these big companies could someday soon be supplanted and wiped off the map by a bigger, badder, more profit hungry, and socially callous foe. I never thought that I would start viewing the big box corporate stores of my youth as the ‘good guys’ that needed advocating for … and that I would even start getting nostalgic for them — Hey, do you remember Ames? That place was everywhere.
I’m sitting in the Best Buy parking lot in Bangor, Maine, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of workers suddenly stepped outside and hung a “going out of business” banner across the entrance. The last time that I was at this store was over a year ago, but the stock inside is nearly exactly the same. In the high paced, rapidly changing world of electronics, this branch of a major electronics chain hardly updated their offerings one iota in a full 12 months. Everything was just sitting in there gathering dust, as though somehow frozen in time — an odd preemptive time capsule of what commerce was like in 2010.
I wanted to buy a 128 gig Sandisk Extreme Pro SD card — a very common item that all electronic stores should have in stock. I wanted the card on that day and didn’t want to wait to buy it online. SD cards are commonly counterfeited on Amazon, so I wanted to get it from a business that at least vetting their supply chain to some degree. But when I looked on the shelf at the place where the little label said they should be there was nothing there. Out of stock. In fact, 80% of the other SD cards that should have been there were out of stock too.
Going into this Best Buy was like going into a local shop or locally owned and operated Radio Shack 15 years ago. You knew that you were standing in the present but looking at the past. It was the sinking feeling of the ephemeral — you come to a start and suddenly stop taking the place for granted; you look around and take it all in because you know that it’s not going to be there for much longer.
The commercial scene in the USA is rapidly becoming a duapoly of Amazon and Walmart. That is the future. Both rely heavily on third party e-commerce marketplaces and both are exploiting loopholes in federal regulation to facilitate the sale of and profit from counterfeits, products that don’t meet safety standards, manufacturers who don’t need to abide by US labor laws, and unfair postal systems which allow merchants in countries like China to ship items to the US for cheaper than it costs to send that same package domestically. Oh yeah, and cross-state and cross-border e-commerce isn’t taxed.
Brick and mortar stores — even big corporate brick and mortar stores — can’t compete against this. They have to pay taxes, they are liable for their supply chains and have to ensure that IP and consumer safety laws are followed, and they have to follow US labor laws. And they are going out of business in droves.
Toys R Us just went under, Abercrombie & Fitch are about to disappear, American Apparel filed for bankruptcy, Bon-Ton is going to soon be a memory, Claire’s — my sister’s favorite store when young — is going the same way as the shopping malls they’re located in, Foot Locker is going down, J.C. Penney is shutting stores all over the place, and even Macy’s probably won’t be around five years from now.
The corporate chains which I once criticized for destroying American labor, commerce, production, and innovation are now starting to look pretty good to me — at least they hired people locally, provided places to actually go, and paid taxes.
Malls in the USA are dying, suburban strip malls are dying, stores in general are dying.
Is this all bad?
I’m sure there will be a physical restructuring of cities because of this — we’re no longer going to need sprawling mall zones without any malls — and we have the opportunity to rebuild our communities in a way that could be more socially inclusive and engaging.
Or we could all just happily buy everything on Amazon — hey, their private label “brands” are sort of like different stores!
Whatever is the case, we’re looking at a future that is going to look very different than it does now. I may soon find myself writing a book called Ghost Cities of America.
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