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Mall landlords struggling to find takers at a price they’ll accept (bloomberg.com)
119 points by petethomas 4 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 185 comments

I remember learning that in the 90s some companies had this useless asset: gas pipelines that spanned the country, but had dried up and were not being used.

Other companies had a problem: how to acquire the rights to lay fiber from one end of the country to the other.

Some very smart person realized you could lay the fiber in the old pipes.

Question: what can be done with all that retail space? Is there a new use of space that will come up?

Related question: what are the properties of malls that we might use? (parking, close to residences, easy to walk through)

It could be a whole new flavor for YC or other incubators - don't come to SF and fight to find housing... come to the new Coding Mall - offices are in the East Wing, apartment in the West Wing, demos and sales kiosks in the former Sears, VC offices in the former JC Penney, and everyone meets up in the food court (which is still running, btw, to keep everyone fed) for informal discussions.

I was in Cleveland over the weekend and got a quick tour from the director of small business development. They turned one of their Arcades (malls) into a small business incubator. It made for a quirky shopping experience. There was a peanut cookie shop next to a handmade bow-tie store. Parts of it felt like walking through Etsy. The tour concluded with several business that had spun off into their own locations. It seemed like a great use of a historic space that from the sound of it was full of run down tourist trap stores.

Which mall was this? Randall? Parmatown? Tower City? Arcade sounds like one of the old downtown ones....

It's probably the 5th Street Arcades https://www.5thstreetarcades.com/

It's really a fantastic space, and it was basically empty just a few short years ago.

That said, its model is not necessarily a solution to suburban mall decay, as it was already part of a dense downtown with a growing residential population and a captive workday population that often uses the arcades as a walkway between Euclid and Prospect.

Many malls will never recover as the US simply has too much retail square footage. Along with that, they're not so great with property tax efficiency, where historic main street districts easily outperform them. There's a Strong Towns article out there somewhere about the subject (probably this one: https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2018/4/23/bon-ton-gone)

It is facinating how the shopping mall model from 70/80s has been on a decline for the last 20 years: https://www.economist.com/node/10278717

I think it is this one: http://www.flashstarts.com/ Looks like it is near Tower City

I'm not sure I'd want to live in an old mall, but I could see them being purposed for office space. Parking is already taken care of, and most have bus routes already in place. The existing food court would be ready for new tenants. Other types of tenants could fill where other retail (e.g. clothing, toys) once occupied, such as a gym/fitness company, FedEx/UPS offices, office supply stores, etc.

Yep, never understood why they don’t convert malls into office spaces. Then again, in the Bay Area (at least South Bay) there are TONS of empty office buildings for rent. I’m guessing that they all just want too much. Maybe it’s a zoning thing with the malls? Seems like they could do it with the one in Cupertino. For being Silicon Valley, sometimes this place really fails to impress with innovations like that. Instead, we have scooter startups.

Sometimes malls are converted to office space. According to the documentary, Making of Riven, Cyan repurposed a strip mall as office space while they were waiting for the construction of a real office. They originally started out in some guy's garage after finishing Myst and crammed 12 people in there, then moved into the strip mall -- which they said was "like heaven" by comparison, but they didn't just stay in the strip mall because it was still too small for all the staff they wanted to bring on.

Some malls just make everything bigger spaces and have them accessible from the outside - basically converting to a hybrid shopping center / mall.

In Indianapolis, one defunct mall was turned into datacenter space [0]... so you could have it all in one place.

[0] http://www.datacenterknowledge.com/archives/2012/10/30/lifel...

Unfortunately, converting that mall has has done nothing for the local area. It's minimal jobs and still a blighted area. birds eye view: https://binged.it/2y6nRsi

crazy guys video, it still mostly looks like this: https://youtu.be/xkHcWDNn_4Q


I'm so glad we opted for the William Gibson distopian future. A Mad Max apolocalyptic hellscape would have been terrible for my skin.

Except instead of a bunch of bright lights and shady characters, there’s a Bowlmor, Coldstone, and a kind of neat eye glasses store. No offices or living spaces YET, but “luxury” (overpriced) apartments and townhouses are just down the street.

Zoning makes this prohibitive in most of America unfortunately

Zoning is a matter of negotiation with the city council. If you are going to bring literally dozens of new employers and hundreds of jobs to a struggling smaller town, and revitalize their old mall, I can just about guarantee they will cooperate, including developing a new zone just for the project if needed.

It's not that easy. Having highly restrictive zoning that makes this sort of thing a big pain in the but is going to be a fairly good indicator of whether or not the government has a "we tell you what to do, you don't negotiate with us" type of attitude.

I'd be surprised if it's not that easy in most jurisdictions. Failing/empty malls are a huge waste of space and an eyesore. I can't imagine a city council not jumping at the opportunity to turn one around even if it meant leasing some of it as office space.

If you're dealing with a struggling smaller town, as codingdave said, and they take that attitude, well, there's another struggling smaller town right next door...

Finland tends to have very restrictive zoning, but they still managed to turn old public hospital stone throw away from city center to startup office space (https://maria.io/). I'm sure there are some local governments where they don't want something like that (likely with attitude similar to "we don't want any changes"), but generally speaking things that bring jobs & capital are very welcome almost everywhere.

They could go the Uber route and completely ignore all laws and regulations and get away with it somehow.

Welcome to the "office". Your workday will consist of 7 hours 59 minutes of accounting spreadsheets, and 1 minute of rearranging these gumballs on display next to the entrance. If anyone asks, you work at a gumball store :)

Perfect match for WeWork

Love too live in the VC mall, "The Company Town, But Tech!™".

Yeah convenient as having your residence, work, and some shopping in one building would be, it's got paid-in-scrip written all over it. Also where do you meet new people? Where do you go on dates? Malls are rarely walkable from other places.

See: any big-tech corporate campus

See Rackspace’s offices.

I would move into such place.

Living in such place I would be plagued by zombie attack nightmares...

Not to worry. The real zombies are the people who used to shop there. Now they’re at home, clicking on the apps you’ll build for them.

Just hire Ving Rhames to provide security. Problem solved.

Station F with apartments?

That’s a great idea.

>Question: what can be done with all that retail space? Is there a new use of space that will come up?

If they can't attract traditional retail tenants, some dead-mall owners have resorted to transforming them into community event centers, offices, or even apartments.[1] I don't know about the profitability of apartments but the community centers do not make enough money relative to the expenses of property taxes and upkeep. The mall is still dying.

The other option is for a new buyer to purchase the mall solely for the land value and demolish the buildings. Two malls in my area were demolished. One was replaced by a Wal-Mart supercenter with some adjacent strip malls sharing the same large parking lot. Another mall was razed and replaced by a Target store. The Wal-Mart and Target have drawn more shoppers than the dead malls they replaced. This is the free market telling us that the locations were commercially viable but the retail configuration (the indoor mall) was worthless.

[1] https://gizmodo.com/7-dead-shopping-malls-that-found-surpris...

Those examples tell me that people don't want to buy as much expensive products anymore; they prefer cheap stuff.

Especially if the expensive products are the same low quality as the cheap stuff.

Zoning can be an issue - there's an abandoned mall in Cupertino that's probably half a mile from the new Apple HQ. And to say it's prime land is an understatement - the entire area is desperate for new housing. Current proposal is for 2,400 housing units on the land.

But previous zoning proposal that were ballot initiatives got defeated (hurray democracy) and it's required a state bill to force the city's hand for zoning. (https://www.mercurynews.com/2018/04/02/community-reacts-to-d...) But still no agreement between the city and the developers.

I'm sure most malls will be trivial to rezone as cities would rather have something paying taxes rather than nothing but that's not the case everywhere.

I know that mall. The usual happened; developers wanted to build lots of housing and no infrastructure. The builder had recently reneged on elderly housing units in another development and were not believed about building a park on top of the structure.

Building density housing is cheap compared to building the schools, parks, fire, police stations, and transportation to support the new density housing.

> Building density housing is cheap compared to building the schools, parks, fire, police stations, and transportation to support the new density housing.

And to close the circle, Prop 13 makes it impossible for towns in California to tax residents enough to pay for the required parks, schools etc. There is an obvious solution (repeal Prop 13, and bump local property taxes enough to cover the infrastructure the new residents will need) but it's politically infeasible.

> Building density housing is cheap compared to building the schools, parks, fire, police stations, and transportation to support the new density housing.

Are developers expected to build those? Don't cities build roads, schools, parks, and police stations with the tax income from the people who live in the houses?

Can't collect tax income until people live there. Can't build fire stations or bus lines where there's no room.

We've had this problem with developers as well - they want to build mega high-rise apartments with no parking whatsoever and force the city to deal with it, despite the city struggling to fill current transportation demand.

Crazy when apartments in the city have no parking and you have to factor in an additional $300/month for a parking space that might be a 10 minute walk from your apartment. It’s like US cities maybe aren’t actually the best in the world or something.

> Are developers expected to build those?

Sure, maybe. Offering to build them for the city is a great way to build goodwill for your project.

If you want to see the ridiculousness of building in the Bay Area, however, you only need to compare this project with another large project proposal somewhere else:


This is nearly the exact same size parcel as the mall in Cupertino. But they are proposing 10,000 housing units and 13 million square feet of development (5x as much). The article calls it "surprisingly low density". But the plans include a new transit station, new roads, many acres of public space, etc. What it will come down to, though, is that the city will say "if you build this, we'll build that". The elementary school that will serve this development is already under construction. So it's likely that the developer will pay for at least half of the train station - it would be significantly more expensive than a school because it is underground at that point.

Yeah, and to be clear, we’re talking “luxury” apartments here, not anything single-family. Bay Area developers ALWAYS pull this: promise “affordable” housing and only sometimes get stuck accepting affordable housing programs into their otherwise-expensive apartments. Examples of the developers who lost: https://www.lowincomehousing.us/CA/santa_clara.html

Btw: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines "affordable" as housing that costs no more than 30 percent of a household's monthly income.

I remember traveling to work to the valley for the first time and driving by Apple HQ just to see it and then, going to the steakhouse near that mall (OMG was it good). I went by that mall and was thinking

"WTF is this doing here with all this insanely expensive land and such!?!?!"

I would half expect the bulldozers to show up with 10 minutes notice or something. I was driving around all amazed by "OMG I know all these cool companies!" .... "What the hell...."

Was it Alexanders steak house? If so I did the same thing (drive by Apple HQ to see it and stopped at Alexanders).

Yup Alexanders! So yummy!

Residential vs. non-residential zoning always tries to tilt towards non-residential, because it has a better potential of return.

Although both pay property taxes and both require utility services like water, sewer, and waste collection, non-residential properties attract both in-town residents and outsiders from other jurisdictions, who then typically spend some money in your town. Meanwhile, residential attracts new residents, who may or may not take jobs in your town, could be spending money in other towns, but need high-cost social services like public schools and community programs in your town.

That explains why Edinburgh allowed the St james centre to exist right in the city centre instead of keeping the existing housing stock there: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._James_Centre. The whole thing has been pulled down and a mixed development should be take its place in the next few years (alreayd underway).

Or even worse, they transfer their Prop 13 to a “replacement property”: https://blog.yonathan.org/posts/2017-10-transferring-prop13-...

Cities don't want housing. They want other cities to fund residents, while they extract their pound of flesh from business offices.

I don't think the question is if the space can be used, but whether or not there are legitimate uses of the space that can also make up for ongoing maintenance costs of such large structures.

I honestly don't think it can. I've seen them turned into office spaces, but it's really not an efficient use of space and the lack of sunlight/windows just makes it depressing.

As far as demolishing goes, most malls really aren't in areas where the space for parking is needed. If they are, then that land is probably highly valuable anyway.

Rackspace purchased a mall a few years back and transformed it into an office space I've found pleasant during visits. Natural light in their space is mostly from above but there aren't exactly scenic surroundings anyways.


I hadn't heard of that, but that is really cool use of the space. That actually looks a lot like the facility I work in, but our's was built for the purpose.

That is definitely proof that good space can be built out of it, but are there enough companies who want to build spaces like that compared to the number of dead malls? There are a lot of dead malls. The ones I've seen are much more corporate-like.

The land is probably more valuable than the building configuration. It's a little different from the pipe example in that way. You can't easily tear up the pipes and do something else with the pipeway, but you could demolish a mall and build an entire live/work district.

Pipelines offer uninterrupted right-of-way continuity from point to point. Shopping malls are distinctly noncontinuous, and better resemble ports (which is what they are).

That's the tricky bit in physically-routed infrastructure: pipelines, canals, rail, expressways, media (vs. transmission-based) comms links. None of them abide well with airgapping.

The comms-transport link goes back at least to the rail era when telegraph lines sprang up along them. You might have heard of one such venture: the Southern Pacific Railroad Internal Network Telecommunications, better known as SPRINT.


A delivery-based fulfillment service, say, Amazon, might have interest in some (though hardly all) of these as local distribution hubs.

Yeah the land is valuable. The building (and sea of parking) on it is built using last century thinking.

Rezone and densify, and build a mixed use walkable community of residential commercial and office.

Some comment here on HN a month or so ago clarified this for me. It's more efficient to have a delivery truck go around to ten different houses than it is to have each of ten different vehicles drive from their houses to a central location.

Now if only there were some way to do that with people, not just with stuff (cough mumble public transit cough).

“But I don’t want inner-city crime coming to MY neighborhood!” See also: why BART doesn’t go down the peninsula to San Jose like it was supposed to. Original BART system plan: https://io9.gizmodo.com/5866928/a-map-of-san-franciscos-subw...

Apartments on the second floor, it's worked in some places, but mostly where the mall was already centrally located http://www.businessinsider.com/americas-first-shopping-mall-...

I'm surprised no one has proposed a vertical farm yet. You've got plenty of storage/shipment zones, diverse levels of sunlight, an intricate climate-control system, and plenty of parking to expand/convert into a solar farm. Then you maintain the food court as a locavore destination

Return on farming basically return on acreage, which means it’s directly tied to the cost of the land. There’s no real way to make a farm economically viable in a high land value area. Going vertical would make the land even more expensive

When i was between the ages of 18-21 in the middle of the 07+ economic crisis i noticed all these "abandoned" car dealerships in my area... grocery stores, etc.

I always thought a good repurposing of these buildings would've been:

-Skate parks or other athletic venue (maybe a gym if the building was the right size?)


-Concert Venues

-Intermittent Rental for Parties/Weddings things of that nature (you setup you break down, just an empty building to host a party)

I guess the rental idea could be used for a number of practical purposes if one had an idea that they thought it would be good for.

We have tons of abandoned big-box stores. There's a old Builders Square in our town that's been empty for...20 years? We have a Pep Boys that's been empty for at least 15. New stores go up, these just sit with 'for rent' signs in front of them. How this is financially possible I don't even know.

One example of this: there's an animal shelter north of Atlanta that used to be a car dealership. http://bgarchitects.com/project/atlanta-humane-society/

yeah in my hometown-Houston there was already a popular nightclub from the 90's (The Roxy?) that was a reused car dealership or some-such so it wasn't too out of the box to be done...its just nightclubs are one thing... healthy athletic alternatives for kids is another (which was my primary idea)

edit: this is a moot point now, but back in the late 90's and early 00's Houston had a serious lack of skateparks which is no longer an issue. Luckily im now an adult and dont really have the time to make use of them like i would've as a kid

On the Bay Area peninsula we saw :

a.) San Antonio/El Camino outdoor mall rebuilt as mixed used retail/residential

b.) Sunnyvale Town Center mall - mixed use retail/residential?

c.) Cupertino Vallco Mall - in litigation/negotiation for mixed use retail/residential

d.) some 50 year old movie theaters with huge parking lots on the edge of existing Santana Row mixed use development were torn down recently to make room for more mixed use development

Adults-only entertainment venue. Fill it with bars, bowling alleys, hookah lounges, marijuana dispensaries (where legal), dance clubs, adult bookstores, places that rent rooms by the hour, other places where you can sleep it off more cheaply with maybe less privacy. Car keys deposited at the door into a machine that won't release them until you pass a breathalyzer.

I think that probably works better in theory than practice. In the real world it's going to be sleazy and run down in a few short years. I'd also like to be at the city council meeting where you propose adding hooker hotel rooms in the original plans.

> I think that probably works better in theory than practice.

Probably, but it's fun to think about.

> In the real world it's going to be sleazy and run down in a few short years.

Sleazy is desirable to a point, but it's easy to go too far in that direction. And getting run down is a definite concern. It's entirely possible that the economics required to keep the place safe and hygienic would price out a lot of customers, and it would struggle to do enough business to stay afloat. Which is actually not so different from the current situation, but at least it's interesting.

> I'd also like to be at the city council meeting where you propose adding hooker hotel rooms in the original plans.

We're gonna have to do it in a very progressively liberal area, or get Kevin Bacon to do it.

No matter how progressive an area is the city council is full of crotchety old people.

In Bay Area cities, most of the "crotchety old people" are "progressives". The non-"progressive" seniors bailed for other states.

> We're gonna have to do it in a very progressively liberal area

In my experience, liberal areas are only permissive when it comes to national policy. When it comes to changing anything significant about their "historic" neighborhoods, you're going to fight tooth and nail with everyone. They'll find an endangered bird species that nests near your old mall to slow down development.

> Car keys deposited at the door into a machine that won't release them until you pass a breathalyzer.

So, basically, "don't bother coming here because you can't leave"?

You'd need to make sure it was either accessible by public transit, or that there's cheap and effective semi-public transit like Lyft or taxi cabs - and it has to be cheap and effective for two trips, since you'll have to come back to pick up your car in the morning.

Those things already serve most shopping malls. The idea was that the venue would provide everything people needed to keep them happy until they sober up, but they would of course be free to leave by means that don't involve DUI.

> The idea was that the venue would provide everything people needed to keep them happy until they sober up

Then they should offer up sleeping accommodations, too.

While I know that in most places, you legally can't serve someone who's already intoxicated, in practice few people go to a bar to get slightly tipsy. If I'm going for a night out, I'm not going to be ready to drive again until morning.

Agreed. That's why I suggested two different types of sleeping accommodations: A nice one for occasions where you're not necessarily alone (or sleeping), and a more bare-bones one for when you just want a place to crash.

Give the people what they want!

In downtown San Jose, there was a hookah lounge and a large billiards space on the same block. Both failed.

In contrast, the failed Borders across from AT&T Park became a bowling space.

I would think zoning laws would get in the way there. You'd have to get the area re-zoned from commercial to residential. Which gets into whatever the local politics of that happen to be.

A local mall in Natick MA recently lost one of their anchor stores (JCPenney) and replaced it with a Wegman's, which the first I saw a supermarket as an anchor store. I would love to know how desperate they must have been or how sweet of a deal they gave Wegman's to make this happen.

If I had a Wegman's I'd go to the mall. They're in Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, but seem to have something against Connecticut. :(

On the malls note, the Chapel Square Mall in downtown New Haven got turned into apartments before I moved here. It's weird and seriously depressing looking, though I haven't seen the interior courtyard area myself. There has to be a better way to do it than this:


If anyone's curious to see the location on google maps/satellite, this is just behind the Omni New Haven hotel, the row of skylights is easy to pick out.

Wegman's are further south as well. There are multiple in Virginia (NoVa, Richmond, Charlottesville).

Yeah, I listed just the nearby states. Connecticut + Rhode Island are a hole in the middle of PA/MA/NY/NJ. They're even expanding to multiple locations in North Carolina, but nothing around here.

I think my closest one is >2 hours away in Woodbridge, NJ. Used to live in PA and had a Wegmans, so it bums me out. Stop 'n Shop isn't the same.

Wegman's attracts a pretty affluent type of shopper, doesn't it? The one in Taunton has Round One, a massive bowling alley/billiards area/video game arcade/karaoke center as its anchor. Which is a lot of fun but probably would have been considered an undesirable tenant a while ago (although I guess in Natick you guys did have Game Underground for a while).

The Taunton mall is actually kind of fun. The run-down nature means that there are funky little stores you wouldn't see in a more upscale mall. But on the other hand it's also half-shuttered.

Having a supermarket as the anchor in a mall is fairly common in Europe.

We need community spaces. Now more than ever. But the whole corporate mall situation is really bad - I’d rather see farmers markets, a grocery store and drug store, maybe some local food vendors (Bangkok style single vendors?). Someplace people actually want to hang out - not just to shop.

Hmm, there is usually lot of open space for tables and chairs in a mall -- throw in some free wifi and turn what was a problem for starbucks into an attraction...

One of the things that I would complain about Bangkok, at least from what I saw, they have sidewalk vendors: but it's really crunched for space. At times it felt like homeless tent, homeless tent, food stand, homeless tent, food stand. (Again this varies about where you're at)

It might in some ways be closer to repurposing an old military installation because of the way mall interiors are designed to be intentionally confusing, disorienting e.g. [0]. It’s a highly specialized facility, in which the layout is optimized to serve a heavily researched purpose.

[0]: < https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gruen_transfer >

Exactly, turning them into parking spaces comes to mind in areas where parking is awful. Museums or even a botanical garden. It's hard to feel bad for landlords who throw in the towel before thinking outside the box. I'm sure online retail giants wouldn't mind buying more warehouse space in prime locations either.

I don't blame a mall operator for not wanting to invest huge sums of money in renovations in order to run an entirely different, probably much less profitable, kind of business.

Much less profitable than owning an empty building?

Owning an empty building can be cheaper than owning a building that requires maintenance and more insurance because it's in use.

No, less profitable than not owning it.

Retail could turn their model on it's head. Rather than consumers coming to the mall, retailer has micro depot and delivers to local customers. The only question is whether or not you can make use of all the parking. If not, then probably not capturing the entire value of the existing infrastructure.

Many of China’s ghost malls were transformed into incubator workspaces over the last few years, including the one next to Microsoft’s office in Beijing. I’m not sure how successful they were, but since the mall was subterranean I wouldn’t think it would be a good place to code.

Many are moving towards entertainment. Restaurants, games, that sort of thing. It's a bit hard, though, as those typically don't need as much space as retail, and if they do they can't afford the rates retail could.

Build Houses, just a thought.

Rackspace uses a bunch of abandoned mall space, as I recall.

The best AR theme parks :-)

The executive branch of the government has found a use:

concentration camps for children

Downvoted because I didn't provide a source?


Coworking space?

Here's an anecdote about my experience at a mall yesterday. I needed some new shoes:

I went to the Skechers store. There were 4 people working. Not a single one ever offered to help me. I had to walk up to the counter and the girl looked shocked when I asked her to get me my size to try on. She handed me the box and walked away. I never saw her again and walked out without making a purchase.

I went over to Macy's to the men's shoe section. The section was about 5x the size of the Skechers store. There was one person working who was busy with a customer at the checkout. After waiting for 10+ minutes with no one to help, I left without ever trying on a pair of shoes.

Then I went to Ecco--they are a small shop with only a small number of shoes. While the salesperson was quite attentive and helped me out, the one pair of shoes they had in the store that were interesting to me didn't fit right so I left.

Tried to go to one more store only to discover that this particular location only carried women's shoes.

All told, this adventure had me in the mall for about 90 minutes and I had managed to try on 2 pairs of shoes. Throw in the drive and it was over 2 hours for nothing.

I went home, spent 20 minutes on Amazon Wardrobe, and I have 8 pairs of shoes in my size arriving at my house in a few days to try on.

Stores in a mall have a real opportunity to win on personal service and instant gratification. Hire someone to help me find shoes that fit me well and go with my own sense of style and who makes sure I go home happy. But if my choices are spend over 2 hours for nothing or go online, I'm choosing the latter every time.

To play devil's advocate here...

1) Are you incapable of finding the right size shoes yourself? The boxes are usually laid out fairly logically and it's pretty rare for there to actually be anything of use "in the back".

2) Hiring people to provide the level of service you're asking for would significantly increase the cost of labor over the minimum wage kids that usually staff these stores. I'm fairly certain the cost increase would guarantee the store goes out of business with the razor thin margins they usually have. Put another way, do you really think paying 50% more for higher quality employees would guarantee 50% more sales revenue?

A big reason online shopping wins is because no one has the expectation that an actual human will help them purchase things, and the labor and rent costs are tiny in comparison to retail.

> 1) Are you incapable of finding the right size shoes yourself? The boxes are usually laid out fairly logically and it's pretty rare for there to actually be anything of use "in the back".

Having large feet, its pretty common for shoes not to have something in my size in the front, but maybe 50% of the time there are shoes in my size in the back.

It's very rare that I shop for shoes in person any more, but the few times I've found myself in a shoe store in the past few years, I'll generally just ask a rep to bring me or point out everything they have in a size 14, which usually ends up being 2-3 pairs.

The best places will understand immediately - some will even know off-hand which ones they have in larger sizes. Most of the time, the rep will respond with an awkward laugh and ask if there's a particular shoe I'm interested in.

At that point, I'll pick literally any random men's shoe and ask them to bring it to me in a size 14. When they return, either they'll come back with a couple pairs of shoes in my size (not the one I asked for), which is great, or they'll come empty handed and I'll ask again, if they can bring me (or point out) everything they have in a size 14, which will generally end up being 2-3 pairs.

Wonder if their initial reticence might come partially from shitty software making it hard to find all available shoes of a given size across all styles?

I used to assume it was just due to a poorly organized back room, or possibly laziness. But it's seemed more that they're not understanding the question as asked.

How often does someone walk into their store and ask them to bring all of a single size to the front? Once they go to the back room to try to find boxes with the number 14 on them, they generally realize the issue.

I've tried going with the longer explanation, but the dance goes on regardless, and my version is the most abridged, thus far.

Instead I'll generally order a few pairs online and then send most back. It's inefficient and wasteful, but Zappos offers next day shipping free for members and an excellent return policy, which is hard to pass up.

Yeah I'd bet they also think "You know how many styles of shoes we have?!" when you first ask then realize how limited the options are once they actually go back.

I don't know what kind of stores you are used to but there is usually only one shoe on display. All the pairs are kept in the back of the store, you cannot try anything without help from the salesperson.

Must be a location thing. I've never been to a store selling <$100 shoes (the kind the OP was shopping for) that didn't have all or most of its inventory on the shelves. For higher-end stores, yes the space is often devoted to display with inventory "in the back", but I was just at a mall Sketchers a few months ago and found my shoes myself with no problem. Same with my department store shoe sections.

Replying here--yeah, the stores inside shopping malls typically lack the real estate to have all the shoes available in the main store and, instead, keep them in a stock room in the back. I've definitely been to both types; but, the mall stores are almost always the "pick a display shoe and have a salesperson bring your size."

I'm not much of a shoe person, but I have literally never been to or heard of a place like this.

Including places like Modells, Macy's, Payless, Sports Authority, etc etc etc

Perhaps it's a cultural difference? Every shoe store I've been to in my whole life is like the parent poster mentioned: there's one pair of each model on display behind glass, and the salesperson goes to the back to get the boxes in your size.

Definitely a cultural difference, and I'm intrigued about this approach. I used to work the shoe department at K-Mart and spent most of my time cleaning up after people who tried shoes on and just left them in the middle of the aisle, or trashed the boxes getting them open (how???), or tossed their old shoes in the box and walked out wearing a brand new pair.

Maybe not as consumer-friendly as what I'm used to, but it sounds heavenly from the employee standpoint.

What are you talking about? If a store were to keep every size of each shoe for public display they would have space to show about four types of shoe. Every shoe store since the beginning of time keeps almost all stock in the back.

In most of Europe, at least in the part of it where I've lived, you have both types of stores. If the store has a separate back, you only 1-2 sizes of each model on display. If the store doesn't or it's too small, you have 1-2 sizes on display next to a more or less organized pile of shoe boxes.

I think the main reason for either is whether the store is built one way or another.

It depends on the store. Some only have display shoes, others have display shoes and sized pairs below them. Generally, the more upscale the store (or the more likely goods are to be stolen) the more likely it is that shoes will be kept in back.

A lot of these stores still operate on a model that requires a salesperson to fetch the product (i.e. the non-display shoes are kept in the back). That in combination with the ever dwindling margins in a brick and mortar retail store makes it difficult to hire adequate staff to meet these needs, that or you wind up paying people such a low wage that you don't attract folks who are very interested in customer service int he first place. This is a phenomenon that I have seen across lots of segments of retail, and I predict that in the next decade we will see a dramatic change in the way retail business is conducted.

Most shoe stores i've been to are all show shoes out front and they grab your size from the back.

Just to provide a counter-point from someone with different tastes, I actually prefer to be left alone when I go to a shop. I'd rather ask for help than have someone hovering trying to be helpful.

In almost all cases, I completely agree with you!

In shops that require interaction to proceed beyond browsing (such as the shoe shops I visited yesterday) I want a salesperson to be attentive and help me so I can spend as little time as possible standing around waiting.

> Stores in a mall have a real opportunity to win on personal service and instant gratification. Hire someone to help me find shoes

You say that as if it's possible in the same way as advice such as 'find a good lawyer'

1) Assumes that if you are helpful customers won't suck up an extraordinary amount of time and that it will pay off in the end (might not)

2) Assumes paying for a better person will result in more sales (may not)

3) Assumes qualified people even want this job (there may be none)

I am not disputing in a perfect world you are right and that better help you will end up with more sales and higher profit. But generally it's not low hanging fruit or very easy. Typically stores that do this well are more specialty stores where the workforce loves the product and will accept lower pay and likes to get the same questions over and over again. (Like an REI store or a bike shop ..) Also the margin on the product matters. Remember rent in malls is very high.

> Remember rent in malls is very high.

Uhh ... Did you forget what article you're commenting on?

Go to DSW, all the shoes are out on the floor to try on. I won't go to Macy's (because they're overpriced) but I refuse to sit around while someone fetches me shoes from the back room.

Unfortunately, DSW generally maxes out at size 13. Otherwise, I agree, and really appreciate how DSW works.

Nordstrom Rack is a pretty great place to shop without asking for someone to "fetch" shoes for you as well, and they tend to have larger sizes and some decent shoes.

Yeah, we happened to be near the mall yesterday for an unrelated reason so I decided to give it a shot. DSW is always a good option; but, I often find myself frustrated with my size being fairly common (translation: often sold out).

Now try walking into an Apple store and buying a new Mac or iPhone in a reasonable amount of time. Good luck!

Unreal! A couple years ago I went into an Apple store prepared to buy an iMac. I'd done my research, knew which model, knocked it around a little in the store, had no reservations about making the purchase. At that point I walked and stood around the store like an idiot for about 20 minutes, asking if I could buy a computer. After being passed around like a cold, moldy potato between Apple employees dealing with other customers who had not yet reached buying decisions, I left, disgusted. Ended up going to Best Buy instead, saved a few bucks.

Malls were always predicated on the assumption that well-to-do suburbanites, increasing in wealth and in number due to relative prosperity in the upper subdivisions of salaried workers, would spend their disposable incomes on getting boutique, brand-signalling merchandise for themselves and their children.

This was a trend that was evidently worth commercially exploiting at a time when malls were being built, but by the 1990s the demand for brand-name goods climbed upmarket enough that a new distinction had to be drawn between a mainstream mall and an upscale mall for this strategy to remain effective. New malls were built at great cost, and they took the most desirable stores, leaving the older wave of malls struggling for enough business to pay for renovations, maintenance, debt, and ROI. This cycle repeated at least one other time, when the outdoor, disassembled 'lifestyle center' became the dominant design pattern in the mid-2000s, by which point the narrative that malls are "dying" had become widespread.

Rather, the market has segmented to a degree that the concept is only profitable at the highest end, while lower offerings are proving uncompetitive with other forces in the economy, like powerful mainstream retailers with lasting appeal (e.g. Target), low-price leaders (e.g. Walmart), reliable stores with strong curation (e.g. Costco), and the convenience of ordering online (e.g. Amazon). Then, it's worth noting that the generation that's 18-35 now spends less of their income on clothes than the generation that was 18-35 when malls were big [1], and apparel stores are about half of a typical mall's occupancy.

Compare all this to Europe and UAE. Malls are doing great there. What's different? Just about everything, from the concentration of population and the particulars of siting that draws a higher proportion of people, to the value-add of having such a variety of shops under one roof, to less competition from non-mall retailers, and brand signalling still being a desirable goal.

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16322720

Compare all this to Europe and UAE.

No, retailers are struggling in the UK at the moment, there have been a number of high profile closures and restructurings. We haven't got the same capacity problems of the US but shopping habits are definitely changing.

Malls, yuck! I find little attractive about them, and I'm not surprised no one's going any more. malls are dying because they're all based on materialist consumerism: something millennials want no part of.

Here's my suggestion. Fill them with Libraries, Gyms, yoga centers, Cafes, Restaurants, movie theaters, science museums, bike repair shops, ceramic hobby shops and indoor swimming pools, theaters and historic museums. That would get me going back in a heartbeat!

And for crying out loud, put those massive cement filled parking spaces underground. Replace all that extra space with Green trees, bushes, parks, bike lanes and outdoor gyms.

Ironically enough the malls were envisioned to be that by the person who came up with the idea, the devil's bargain here was letting cars be the part of the equation.


Also I'm not sure about the egalitarianism of the millenials. Millenials shop at Amazon, and we've seen article after article reporting on deplorable ways the company in treats its workers.

>materialist consumerism: something millennials want no part of.

You must have missed Instagram... Consumerism is alive and well among millenials. Remember not everyone is a HN reader who works in IT...

> they're all based on materialist consumerism... Libraries, Gyms, yoga centers, Cafes, Restaurants, movie theaters, science museums, bike repair shops, ceramic hobby shops and indoor swimming pools, theaters and historic museums

Aside from libraries and (some but certainly not all) museums, aren't all of these examples of things that fit well within materialist consumerism?

I also prefer yoga studios, expensive coffee, fancy restaurants to specialty knives, clothes shopping, shoe shopping, and food courts.

But those sorts of personal preferences are just matters of choosing what to consume, which doesn't seem like a fundamental or important difference.

The things I mentioned are mainly about experiences. For example, with a 5$ cup of coffee you get a great third place to hang out in an inspiring location, comfortable seat, stable table and wifi: it's not really about the coffee (for me anyways).

> The things I mentioned are mainly about experiences

I've become convinced that clothing and shoe shopping is also "mainly about the experience" for many people.

I don't get it, and I'm happy to see enough others who don't get it so that there's a critical mass of consumers for the business that provide the things I enjoy to thrive. But I do believe it's a matter of preference (and perhaps also of environmental/economic impact).

Well at least the results don't end up in landfill.

> Here's my suggestion. Fill them with Libraries, Gyms, yoga centers, Cafes, Restaurants, movie theaters, science museums, bike repair shops, ceramic hobby shops and indoor swimming pools, theaters and historic museums. That would get me going back in a heartbeat!

what's the point of getting you back if all the largest of those things make little to no money?

malls aren't a contest to see who can get the most bodies into the smallest space. (and if it were, they'd lose to clubs and bars anyways.) they're a contest to see who can pack the most variety of businesses into the smallest space.

not all of them need to make much money if they're run by the local gov or by a non-profit (libraries, parks, outdoor gym areas, museums), just enough to keep them going: like the way we have libraries and parks, etc.

>malls are dying because they're all based on materialist consumerism: something millennials want no part of.

There are more than millennials alive. The malls are dead because it's not longer convenient. Clothing stores are now in neighborhood shopping centers. Not to mention the real killer: the internet.

Funnily enough, the malls near where I live are packed. Go to a suburb of a with a large immigrant or minority population (the folks who are still having kids), and you’ll see tons of older millennial pushing strollers around the mall.

It's hard to explain how important malls were to some of my younger colleagues, or to folks who didn't grow up in some no-name midwestern suburb like I did. Malls were temples and town squares. They were facebook. They were the internet. Virtually all of your exposure to the "outside world" happened there.

Malls were incredibly well built and thought through. They were the crown jewel for many mid-size towns (perhaps next to sports stadiums). They boasted large, secure, climate controlled areas, often in places that had dramatic seasonal weather changes. They were a constant.

I think they represent a tremendous bargain, provided a good deal is struck, and someone knows what to do with the space. However, the window for this to happen is small. Spaces that are that large that fall into disrepair often are unsalvageable.

I think this might be US-centric phenomena. While we have some Malls in the UK, I believe most shops never really left the high-streets here (until the rise of the internet).

OP mentioned a "no-name midwestern suburb" - in places like that, the main shopping street in the town often never existed in the first place. The land use goes straight from farms or ranch land to massive suburban housing developments with no functional town having ever existed in between.

Thats not how all of the US works thankfully, but in huge parts of the country which are still doing the suburban sprawl thing, its a pretty common pattern. The nearest city which existed before the 1950s might be an hour's drive away, everything is new and purpose-built by large scale commercial developers.

In much of Europe malls would have to be built on the outskirts of towns because city centers are obviously too densely populated and historically imported to raze things and build such a huge new structure. People could not get to those outskirts unless the city invested in new transportation connections, and this limited development.

Unfortunately, where I am in Eastern Europe, car ownership has risen high enough to make the creation of malls on the outskirts a viable business model. This has had the deleterious effect of now draining business from city centers (where, all these newly bourgeois car owners complain, there is insufficient parking), making once prosperous high streets into ghost towns. Basically we are going through the same historical period that many in Western Europe or North America now recognize as a big mistake.

Yes, I'd say it's among the most characteristic of the American suburb.

We did get a lot of out of town supermarkets though and they killed off lots of butchers, bakers, greengrocers and such like in town centres.

Declining retail is one factor, but bad balance sheets are the other.

This type of development is fueled by favorable up-front tax and accounting treatments for development, but it requires constant growth for the companies to survive. When you get to the back-end of the 30 year loans, you're paying principal on a depreciated asset... the bag of tax tricks isn't enhancing profit anymore.

The fact that the operators are desperate is a good thing -- they'll be bankrupt soon and useful redevelopment of these massive properties can start taking place.

When I was a kid in the 90s, I remember malls being much more of a destination--they had big atriums with fountains and indoor trees.

By the early 2000s, when I was in high school, they were much more utilitarian. This was way before online shopping was killing their profits.

I'm assuming it had something to do with consolidation and the new owners trying to extract maximum short term profits.

As a teen in the 90's, "the mall" was absolutely a destination. Our parents would drop us off on a Friday or Saturday, and we'd spend hours there with our friends.

Recently, a local mall near me (Lansing, MI) updated their policy to limit the number of "unsupervised youths" roaming their mall Fri/Sat evenings. Apparently the complaints have gone up, regarding teens and younger children running and being loud.


I also distinctly remember enjoying going to the mall as a kid because of the fountains and glass ceiling atrium, lots of seating spaces, is that not a thing anymore?

Portland's Clackamas Town Center used to have a beautiful skating rink, large fountains next to escalators, and foliage. This has mostly been replaced with a seating area, a larger food court, and more shops. It's considerably less appealing to just _be_ in, at least for me. I miss stuff like that.

None of the malls in the Atlanta area that I can think of have fountains or lots of seating anymore. Many of them do still have the glass ceilings.

“It’s a tough environment. I don’t think anybody really anticipated the decline of the department store to happen as quickly as it did,”

Yeah, right, all you ostriches ignoring the advance of online retail for the last 15 years.

It's happening a lot slower than I expected.

Bloomberg had a fun little game a while back where you could play a mall owner trying to keep your property profitable... Lovely retro experience, worth checking out:


Just turn them into community colleges, or satellite university locations. Put up some apartments and offer the full experience. You have plenty of parking.. plenty of land.

I would be a big fan of them converting the locations in to mixed use housing and retail.

I've been watching a lot of videos recently on visiting abandoned or dying malls in America and was wondering if it could be possible to convert them into residential/communal areas?

They could be almost self-contained; with housing, shops, entertainment, etc all under one roof.

Malls need to move from Everything to Everyone to targeted segments of the consuming public.

My suggestion would be to rebuild the existing set of retail locations and target a group or niche to drive more traffic. For Example: Focus on Moms with kids from zero to 6. All the stores would cater to this group. You wouldn't see Athletic Shoe Stores or Abercrombie but store like Baby Gap, Carters, Gymboree or Children's Place. Add in Starbucks and a few other children friendly restaurants. Put in one or two play spaces for kids. Offer Free Babysitting if the Moms schedule appointments at a Yoga Center, Nail or Hair Salon. Make it a destination for Mom's to One Stop Shop for all their needs and a place where kids can play while they sit and watch or shop. Put in a couple of Pediatricians, Eye Doctors and a few Kids focused Dental Services. A Kids focused Movie Theatre and maybe even an aquatic center attached but for young kids. Make the entire place a destination. "THE" go-to place in town to shop for Moms with kids from infant to 6.

Or take an existing Mall and put in an indoor Skate Park. Fill it with stores catered to 16 to 25 year olds. Set the expectation that you expect Youth to "cruise" the locations. Add some security to make it safe and create a hangout where they will shop.

My suggestion would be to rebuild the existing set of retail locations and target a group or niche to drive more traffice. For Example: Focus on Moms with kids from zero to 6. All the stores would cater to this group. You wouldn't see Athletic Shoe Stores or Abercrombies but store lke Baby Gap, Carters, Gymboree or Childrens Place. Add in Starbucks and a few other children friendly restaurants. Put in one or two play spaces for kids. Offer Free Babysitting if the Moms schedule appointments at a Yoga Center, Nail or Hair Salon. Make it a destination for Mom's to One Stop Shop for all their needs and a place where kids can play while they sit and watch or shop. Put in a couple of Pediatricians, Eye Doctors and a few Kids focused Dental Services. A Kids focused Movie Theatre and maybe even an aquatic center attached but for young kids. Make the entire place a desitination. "THE" go to place in town to shop for Moms with kids from infant to 6.

Scottsdale AZ's Galleria struggled as a retail mall, tried other purposes and then it went business park. Seems to be working, do not read headlines about it being sold for pennies on the dollar anymore...


I wonder if it makes sense to turn malls into office spaces. That'd keep the food court busy, too.

I was thinking the same thing. Co-working is on the rise, as are small rental office units with shared assets. Maybe they could turn a mall into a Googleplex for small business, with a game area, food court, pub/bar, gym, grocery/drug stores. I think a creative person with good business sense could pull it off.

There are several nice fancy style strip mall type places near me. All of them reportedly have sky high rents and several are largely empty and have been for years and all cycle through stores at a surprising rate. They keep up the malls just fine as if they're occupied, but they're mostly empty.

It seems like such a waste to not have something operating in there.

Maybe they can turn large vacant malls into housing for the vast homeless populations found living in shantytowns and tent-cities throughout the west coast?

In the common conception of markets no seller has enough power to sit on their laurels, they must sell their product in order to survive. It seems wrong to me that in the real estate market liquidity would drop as prices drop. There needs to be a cost associated with holding real estate so that there is turnover in good times and bad times.

Owners of real estate already pay property taxes. Are you just proposing that those be increased? And you think that will make real estate more valuable? I'm missing something here...

He didn't say anything about making it more valuable, just that it would increase liquidity. In other words, the idea would be to prevent property from sitting dormant in a bad market, as an owner who has no profitable use for the property would be forced to sell it to someone who does, to get at least some value out of it before the tax eats all the value.

Perhaps something like an abandonment tax could accomplish this. Force owners to either sell it or use it. Even if they aren't using it optimally, just requiring some minimum usage to avoid a heavy penalty tax could go a long way to eliminating properties that are just tied up by someone hoping the value goes up eventually.

>Are you just proposing that those be increased?

Sure, or an additional tax on unused or barely used real estate if we wanted to be targeted, but really I like the broad property tax.

>And you think that will make real estate more valuable?

No, I'm not trying to make real estate more valuable, actually I'm trying to make it less valuable by ensuring that the high levels of competition we see in booming real estate times carries over to the busts. If the costs are so low that people are just sitting on these properties and waiting for a magical moment when prices rise then obviously costs need to be increased to pressure these people to enter the market. Liquidity shouldn't drop when prices drop.

Increasing property tax in general is less bad than this "unused or barely used" tax idea. That sounds like a good way to turn all old malls into flea markets. That is, big messy places where anyone can sell anything she wants out of the back of her van, for $5 a day. "Anything she wants" will include a wide variety of items to which neighbors will object strenuously. In addition to the unsavory sales activity, other unsavory activity will also take place. There's no way any taxation scheme will pay for the required extra policing.

I won't be surprised if we don't see this happen...

Land value tax: a levy on the unimproved value of land.

It actually depresses the price of land, by socialising the positive value. But it also increases the available supply, paradoxically: given that land is price-inelastic, the supply doesn't change relative to price. Increase the carrying cost and the result is that landlords must sell or rent in order to cover costs. This is particularly associated with Henry George, though his work was based heavily on David Ricardo and Adam Smith.


http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/392c33a6-211f-11e3-8aff-00144feab7... (Alternate: http://archive.is/iQMRn )

Like property taxes, perhaps? (unfortunately(?), many states do not have them)

1) Do malls exist in Europe?

2) If yes, are they also failing?

Stupid ClickBait Headline:

"That’s proving difficult, with just a shallow pool of investors who are willing to take on a declining mall and even fewer who would pay what the landlords want."

How is that practically giving way?

You know what? I'll sell anything you can find in my garage for $2M USD. Anything and all things. Is that pratically giving away?

Depends on what's in your garage.

totally agree.

my favorite line is: and even fewer who would pay what the landlords want

alternatively, a journalist could interpret the situation with: "Investors face a drastic shortage of declining mall properties and are lobbying American legislators to ease restrictions on declining malls so that more can be made available."

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