Economic Conditions From Ground Level

July 18, 2008 – A firsthand, ground level preview of the future: empty office parks, shopping malls and housing subdivisions.

By The Cerebral Aesthetic Vagabond

I’ve never been much into shopping malls. Actually, I hate the places: the haunting Stepford Wives music, the weird, unnatural lighting, the hordes of zombie-like shoppers, store after store selling the same useless crap. I mean, do we really need a hundred stores selling clothing and shoes and sunglasses? I only go to shopping malls when I need something that can best be found there, like yesterday. I have a bunch of watches that have dead batteries. So I finally got motivated to replace some of the batteries and make the watches usable again. Not possessing the required tools to remove the backs from these watches, I decided to go to a shopping mall to look for a store that could perform this servicing.

I’m not a frequenter of shopping malls, but what I saw yesterday was shocking and unprecedented. In a mall that I estimated had around 100-150 shops, there were around eight prominent retail spaces, including one huge anchor space that were vacant. In addition, almost all of the obnoxious cell phone kiosks the obstruct one’s passage through the mall were empty and available for lease.

The vacancies alone were surprising, but what was shocking and even a bit troubling was the dearth of shoppers. I’ve never seen that before at any mall. You could literally hear a pin drop on the mall’s marble flooring, and even the music was turned down in acknowledgment of the quietness of the place. It was eerie, reminiscent of post-apocalyptic movie sets in films such as The Omega Man, or perhaps even more fittingly, Dawn of the Dead. I really love this latter film, which is set in a shopping mall. In one scene, one of the characters in the film says of the zombies trying to claw their way into the mall, “They don’t really know why they come here. Something in their distant memory draws them here,” or something like that. That comment always stuck with me as an apt description of real life shoppers in today’s malls. About the only people in the mall were teenagers, probably killing time in the comfortable air conditioned space. I doubt they were actually buying much of anything.

The individual retail stores were quiescent and pretty much empty, the solitary, sedentary clerks barely bothering to look up from their books as I walked past their stores. I went into an antique store and walked around for twenty minutes – I was the only shopper the entire time I was there. Before leaving the store I had a pleasant, unhurried chat with the proprietor, who went back to reading his book when I left. I felt really sorry for that guy, who I assumed was the owner of the store. How disheartening it must be to own a business like that and have no customers, and there’s nothing you can do about it because your customers are up against insurmountable forces and quite unable to spend money in your shop.

I’ve observed this creeping depression for years. Years ago, driving through the formerly industrious parts of San Diego, I noticed office park after office park with “For Lease” signs in front. Many months later I noticed the same phenomenon occurring with strip malls. Now major shopping malls. What’s striking about the shrinking retail portion of the economy is that our experts tell us that the U.S. economy is 70% dependent on retail!

If things are this bad now, what’s going to happen over the next couple of years? I imagine that entire shopping malls will simply shut and lock their doors.

The End