Today, we have a guest post from Vicki Howard, Visiting Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Essex and author of From Main Street to Mall, co-winner of 2016 Hagley Prize in Business History. The first national study of the department store industry, Howard's book traces the changing economic and political contexts that transformed the American shopping experience in the twentieth century. With careful attention to small-town stores as well as glamorous landmarks such as Marshall Field's in Chicago and Wanamaker's in Philadelphia, Howard offers a comprehensive account of the uneven trajectory that brought about the loss of locally identified department store firms and the rise of national chains like Macy's and J. C. Penney. Drawing upon this expertise, Howard uses today's post to examine the historical context for—and potential impact of—recent store closings by retail giants such as Macy's.
I didn’t visit a shopping mall once this holiday season. Like others, I did much of my gift shopping online. Given my own experience, I wasn’t surprised by the recent actions of two long-standing shopping center anchors, Macy’s and Sears. Macy’s is closing sixty-three stores across the United States, while Sears announced plans to shut 150 locations and sold its classic Craftsman brand in order to raise cash after a prolonged sales slump. It’s not just this year’s disappointing holiday sales either, like those reported by Kohl’s and others. J.C. Penney, an important shopping mall anchor since the late 1950s, is still struggling, even after eliminating dozens of locations over the past several years.
This is all terrible news for the tens of thousands of employees who have or will lose their jobs. It is also unfortunate for consumers and for shopping malls that are already struggling for tenants. With their wide range of fashion merchandise and staple goods, department stores attract shoppers to malls. They also increase traffic to specialty shops and boutiques within the mall as consumers are pulled between anchors at either end. The announced closures will certainly increase the number of shopping mall graveyards that litter the American landscape. Rural communities and small towns will be especially affected as their shopping options become more limited. They will lose valuable community space for meeting up with friends and family, taking part in charity or school events, selling Girl Scout cookies, or getting a picture taken with Santa at Christmas. Some of the planned closures are in downtown shopping districts. The shuttering of downtown units will hurt urban shoppers, especially those who are not able to travel out to suburban commercial centers to fulfil their needs.
As a shopper, I wasn’t surprised by these closures. As a retail historian, I wasn’t either. Upheavals and disruptions in retailing are nothing new. Department stores challenged single-line merchants at the end of the nineteenth century and were the Wal-Marts of their era. Chain stores threatened independent department stores in the 1920s and 1930s, while discounters emerged in full force after World War Two. Department stores were themselves major developers of the new suburban shopping centers, opening branch stores that eventually seriously undercut their own downtown store sales and led to the decline of central business districts in cities across the country. And in the 1980s, massive department store industry mergers resulted in the loss of local nameplates across the country. After the 2005 mega-merger of Federated and May Department Stores, many historic department store icons were rebranded as Macy’s, ceasing to exist as local or regional nameplates. As Macy’s became the largest department store chain, shoppers began to complain of standardization as shopping experiences became the same, pretty much everywhere. Consumers turned to the convenience and versatility of the digital marketplace.
But I think it is wrong simply to blame e-commerce and attribute the changing retail environment to consumer choice. There is also nothing inevitable about what has happened to retail. A long-view, one that situates America’s shopping culture in a broader context, sheds more light on the reasons behind the decline of the iconic mall. The decline of shopping mall culture in America parallels a diminishment of civic life and public culture as people choose to shop from the privacy of their own home. A drive-through culture is also to blame. Power centers outside of traditional downtown cores reflect this larger shift. Comprised of “category killers”—big box stores like Home Depot and discount department stores like TJ Maxx or Wal-Mart—they are even more car-oriented than the traditional shopping mall as shoppers reach each store individually by automobile. They also lack the community or “public” spaces of an indoor mall and are typically without the amenities and attractions that might encourage one to dawdle and people-watch on a bench or spend time having a cup of coffee (Barnes & Noble excepted, though this chain is also in trouble).
The reasons behind the bleak retail landscape today go back further than the emergence of the digital marketplace. And they are multi-fold. The department store industry’s pursuit of bigness over the twentieth century, consumers’ preference for low prices and mass consumption in the suburbs, and government policies that favored chains, automobility, shopping center development, and mass discounters all contributed to the demise of the traditional department store. With its symbiotic relationship to the shopping mall, department store decline has infected this postwar American institution. A cure does not seem to be in the offing, though many lament the decline of the traditional downtown department store and are even beginning to feel nostalgia for the shopping mall.
This nostalgia can be understood in broader terms as well. In part, it is an expression of cultural dissatisfaction with globalization and the world of Wal-Mart. In many cases, it originated as a middle-class, aesthetic response to changes in the urban landscape—as opposition, for example, to the “malling” of America. But, now, malls are in decline and this may cause a similar cultural response. Or not. In the past, I have written that nostalgia for our changing commercial landscape reflects a growing sense that globalization has destroyed the city-specific or regional identities that evolved around these older commercial forms. Some, for example, condemned the rise of “corporate blandness” as their favorite stores were “taken over by Federated.” Newspaper articles on the closing of local stores invariably contained quotes from former customers comparing the distinctiveness of their favorite stores to the standardized nature of chain store shopping. People lamented the loss of private department store brands, like Marshall Field’s Frango Mints, which had become closely connected to the local identity of the Chicago store since they were first introduced in 1929. Local department stores like the Crescent in Spokane in the 1960s were remembered as having a “unique atmosphere” that contemporary retailers lacked. When the 1967 Palm Beach Mall was demolished a few years ago, a public outcry ensued. Further decline of shopping malls might generate more feelings of loss and nostalgia. Whether that will change brick and mortar’s trajectory is doubtful.