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Sunday, May 4, 2014

Can this mall be saved?

Ladies' Home Journal, the first magazine in America to have more than a million subscribers, ceased monthly publication in April after 131 years. One of its enduring features was "Can This Marriage Be Saved?".

Last Saturday Gail and I needed a spot for a quick dinner, so we dropped by the food court at Crabtree Valley Mall, two miles from our house. I recall shopping at Crabtree only twice in the last two years -- once for men's underwear at Sears, and once accompanying Gail as she bought a new purse. Twenty years ago, I went to Crabtree at least once a month for something. Can this mall be saved?

The website deadmalls.com, approaching its fifteenth anniversary, documents the failure of over 400 malls. Among those I'm very familiar with Montgomery Mall in my birthplace and Fashion Mall in Plantation, Fla. down the street from a large office of my former employer. Malls fail for many reasons: poor location, outdated design, shifting demographics, and the advent of the Internet. Here in Raleigh, the combination of prosperity and rapid growth in population has been the proverbial tide that lifts all boats in retail. Crabtree remains in business despite the new malls that have opened here and the frequent failures elsewhere. Nevertheless, I wonder whether Crabtree's future is assured. Based on what I saw, the demographics of those who frequent Crabtree are changing even if the demographics of Raleigh overall are not. Management of Crabtree chose to reposition the mall slightly upscale ten years ago, but that might have been a mistake in the long run.

It's a fact of life that retail is in constant flux. Every mall used to have a Waldenbooks or a B. Dalton (or both), a music store, a videogame arcade, and a cafeteria (Piccadilly or Morrison's in the South). Many had a Sharper Image. All those are gone, as are many of the Radio Shacks and other stores that seemed to be ubiquitous in malls. Turnover is normal in retail. But whether most malls are plowing down the same sad trajectory as most of their predecessors in downtown, is an interesting question. And if so, what do we do with the empty buildings and the once-valuable real estate?