The enclosed, climate-controlled shopping mall has become a quintessential icon of American culture on par with baseball or McDonald’s golden arches.
Though experts don’t agree whether or not the centers, which ascended to prominence starting in the 1960s, are a fading favorite with shoppers, many seem to think they’re no longer the dominant shopping destinations as elaborately-designed open-air centers such as Phoenix’s Kierland Commons begin to steal the spotlight.
Some Valley experts go further saying that the days of the indoor malls are numbered, while others say they still serve as vibrant destinations in today’s retail world.
But, the focus away from enclosed malls in the industry is evidenced by the number of open-air developments which are sprouting throughout the East Valley. The last enclosed mall to be built the East Valley was the Chandler Fashion Center, which opened in 2001. Since then, open centers like Mesa Riverview, Tempe Marketplace and Desert Ridge Marketplace have become the new buzzwords among shoppers and developers.
Paul Serafin, an associate with DeRito Partners, which is building Riverview at Loop 202 and Dobson Road, called the indoor mall “a dying breed” in the Valley.
He said one of the chief reasons behind the popularity of plaza’s like his was simple — the Valley’s great weather.
“Everyone wants to be outside,” he said.
David Larcher, executive vice president of Vestar Development, which built Desert Ridge Marketplace and Tempe Marketplace among other plazas, agreed. But, he said more forces are at work than just weather.
Consolidation and bankruptcies within the department store industry have meant that their influence over mall developers has faded.
“The department stores really drove the boat,” he said. “That was the format they were comfortable with. That was the new mouse trap in the ‘60s and ‘70s.”
Larcher also cited the rising number of two-income households, which have chewed away at the malls’ chief customer base — women.
“People have less time to shop,” he said. “To go to an enclosed mall, that’s a minimum ... two hour-plus venture.”
Other experts point to the richer array of shopping venues like the Internet and TV, and the increasing average size of stores such as Barnes & Noble, which often incorporate cafes and reading spaces in their floor plans as playing a major role behind the malls decline in popularity.
Tipton Housewright, a principal with the Phoenix-based architecture firm, Omniplan, said the drive-up convenience that open-air centers offer is very appealing to consumers, as well.
He said although the traditional indoor centers are still viable market players, the format may no longer exist in 10 to 20 years.
However, some industry watchers dismiss the suggestion that the traditional mall format will get edged out of existence anytime soon.
“The (indoor) mall as a format ... is still very viable,” said Malachy Kavanagh, vice president of communications at the International Council of Shopping Centers, a Manhattanbased trade association.
Kavanagh said the amount of indoor mall construction projects has fallen from about 30 a year a generation ago to only three or four a year today.
Still, he said mall owners who compete intelligently can continue to stay ahead of the game by keeping a fresh mix of retail and staying current with their designs.
He said the pendulum could eventually swing back the other way.
“It’s a buzz,” he said. “But if they’re not true to their form (they) probably won’t last. That happens with every retail concept. If you go back to the ‘80s when outlet centers became very much en vogue ... some of them didn’t make sense.”
Garrett Newland, assistant vice president of development for Westcor Development, agrees.
“Someone asked me a few weeks ago if I thought the enclosed regional mall was dead. I don’t think so. I disagree with that thought. There are certain locations where an enclosed regional mall makes a lot of sense,” Newland said.
But Newland said centers with more integration of the outdoors are a new vibrant force in the industry.
“It is definitely a very dynamic industry and change occurs,” he said.
Allison Brown, a manager at Crate & Barrel Furniture Store at Kierland Commons in north Phoenix, said the shopping center is generally busier than other enclosed malls where she’s worked.
She said on very hot days, patrons will flock to indoor malls, however, there’s a “huge appeal” to open-air centers.
“The do enjoy (it),” she said of her customers. “They can walk around, have lunch (and) meet friends. So, there is a sense of community.”