There were three things you could do on the weekend as a young teen in the suburbs where I grew up in the late ‘90s — go to the movies, go bowling, or go to the mall. For my friends and me, there was only ever one option: We’d dress up, hit the mall, and spend the little babysitting money we made on The Body Shop Satsuma soaps and body butter and baby tees.
Then, we’d do it all over again the next time we could convince someone’s mom to drive us. As we got older, we’d head into the nearby city to the “good” mall, window shop in “sophisticated” stores like Sephora and Aritzia that we didn’t have at home (and couldn’t afford), and pretend we were worldly adults who lived nearby instead of teens who had to be on the 5 p.m. train home to not miss our curfew.
But even before COVID, the hallowed institution of Cher Horowitz disciples had become passée, thanks in part to the same slate of retailers (you’ve seen — and smelled — one Abercrombie & Fitch, you’ve seen them all), few options for plus-size shoppers, and the click-and-it’s-yours ease of online shopping that has killed the popularity of mall mainstays like J.Crew and shut down stores ranging from Bebe and The Limited to Henri Bendel.
In 2022, however, multi-brand spaces are making a comeback. Shopping in malls, while still below pre-COVID levels, is on the rise again, with Black Friday shopping (the Olympics for us mallrats) last year up 83% from the year before. The experience is also making the news: Rihanna just opened her first Savage X Fenty retailer in a Vegas mall. Meanwhile, Amazon, the online behemoth, is opening Amazon Style at The Americana at Brand Mall in L.A., banking on boosted and, frankly, bored consumers ready to spend.
“The ‘shoptainment’ — the entertainment of shopping — is coming back, especially for that younger consumer,” says Tamara Szames, an industry advisor with trend forecaster NPD Group. She notes that it’s in large part because our social lives have been restricted for so long as a result of the pandemic. “We also can’t lose touch that we’re human. We like that interaction and that experience.”
There’s also a nostalgia factor at play here. We’re all yearning for a simpler time when the biggest decision facing us on a Saturday afternoon was: Should I get this crewneck in blue or purple instead of: Should I get the Pfizer or Moderna booster?
We’re all yearning for a simpler time when the biggest decision facing us on a Saturday afternoon was: Should I get this crewneck in blue or purple instead of: Should I get the Pfizer or Moderna booster?
Mall retailers, at least those in larger cities (the department store-led shuttering of so many malls outside of urban centers is a different, sadder story) have also upped their game: 50% of retailers (both in malls and out) have undergone some sort of renovation since the pandemic, according to Szames. Many changes are cosmetic, focused on making shoppers’ experiences better — smaller stores with limited racks of merchandise, upscale customer service (like concierges and personal shoppers or drinks and snacks), hashtaggable experiences in front of sun-bleached wooden benches and neon signs.
Then there are the digital innovations. At Amazon Style, shoppers will be able to select what they’d like to try on in-store on an app. After the items are hand-delivered to the smart fitting rooms, customers can alert salespeople for a new size or a different color. (While this is some of the digital innovation Amazon is promising, similar tech-forward setups have already been tested at stores like Reformation.) Meanwhile, a device in the Savage X Fenty stores uses augmented reality to scan your body in 3D to ensure your best fit.
To meet today’s savvy shoppers who crave individuality rather than the identical skinny jeans-Uggs-and-sweater combos my friends and I used to wear, retailers are also getting more creative. Catering to the more eco-conscious set, mall presences like Levi’s and North Face are selling secondhand goods right beside new stock. Other big-brand retailers like Nordstrom are appealing to shoppers who want to support independent brands or experience the element of discovery by hosting pop-ins with emerging designers — creating a more fulsome experience with labels consumers might have never found on their own.
“When we were growing up it was like, Go to Claire's, go to Abercrombie. Now, people have the opportunity to be exposed to so much more. It's incredible,” says Lisa Bühler, the founder of Lisa Says Gah, the exuberant online-only San-Francisco-based womenswear label that currently has a pop-in in Nordstrom. The partnership has been so successful, Bühler’s even entertaining her own stores in the future: “I think online will still be the bulk of revenue, but, when it comes to brand sentiment and lifetime value and creating and nurturing that relationship with the customer, having a slice of in-person is definitely important.”
Blame it on the pandemic (an era where open-air shopping centers feel safer than shopping indoors) or general nostalgia (Los Angeles’ famed shopping hotspot The Grove is turning 20 this year), but malls have also become destinations, as much for shopping and socializing as they are for the experience.
Thanks to the 16-story Vessel outside of its doors, not to mention its nap pods, art installations, and 100 stores, Hudson Yards has become as big an NYC attraction as the Statue of Liberty. A mall in Houston now boasts a 40,000 square foot art museum that would put the shopping center with the biggest movie theatre to shame. Then, there are the luxury restaurants, the Equinoxes, the co-working spaces (SaksWorks — yes, Saks and WeWork made a baby), and the stunning green spaces — all designed to keep you lingering with your friends just a little bit longer, whether to look at sharks at an aquarium or test-drive a Tesla in the parking lot.
As we’ve grown up, the mall, it seems, has grown up with us. See you there on Saturday? Bring all your friends.