Retail Workers, Shoppers Scramble as ‘Dead Malls' Close

One in four malls are slated to close, according to Credit Suisse, but experts suggest that luxury malls may be at a lower risk of closure

This is one of a two-part series on how malls in America are changing as the retail industry evolves. Read the other part, on the ways some malls are trying to attract the affluent with experiences, here.

Filmmaker Dan Bell spent much of his youth in the 1990s working at a mall. In 2014, when he realized the difficulties facing many of these once-thriving shopping centers, he set out to document them before they disappeared.

Today, Bell's "Dead Mall" series on YouTube features 43 videos with 1.5 million combined views.

It's a subject that's long fascinated him — some of Bell's most vivid childhood memories include the first dead mall he ever encountered, Jumpers Mall in Pasadena, Maryland.

"I would walk around the mall and there was just all these empty stores and it was just fascinating to me. Even as a kid, it’s just something that I couldn’t quite understand," he said.

Bell's passion project-turned-viral sensation captures the morbid fascination  many Americans feel as they ponder what the future will bring for brick-and-mortar retail. Department store job numbers and sales continue to decrease as longstanding retailers close locations nationwide. This decline, coupled with the ease of online shopping, has left consumers wondering what's in store for American malls.

Analysts at financial services company Credit Suisse say that 25 percent of malls in the U.S. will close by 2022. Some malls are trying to create interactive experiences to attract customers as part of multi-million-dollar redesign projects, but not all malls have the resources to make that kind of shift.

"The malls that are not closing are the luxury malls," said Stuart Applebaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. "We've seen a boom in those and people driving to shop for brands that they can’t get elsewhere."

This trend is reflected in the closures of department stores like Macy's and J.C. Penney, which, according to Fortune Magazine, have been hit harder than their upscale counterparts, Nordstrom and Bloomingdales.

"It's the diversity of a mall that creates its traffic," said Mark A. Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School. "Unless it's redeveloped with enough energy … there really is no chance for it to revive. Now there's a tremendous amount of money in that, and many of these malls are financially impaired — so the likelihood that they'll be configured is not that great."

The Tri-State Mall in Claymont, Delaware, featured in Bell's "Dead Mall Series," exemplifies the difficulties faced by malls serving lower- and middle-income shoppers.

Terece Rice, from nearby Wilmington, said she had fond memories of visiting the mall with her family in in the 1990s, but when she went back this July for the first time in 16 years, she barely recognized the place.

"When we pulled up into the parking lot, as we were turning in, there was very few cars," she said. "Where K-Mart was at, there was nothing there. The mall was totally empty except for Burlington Coat Factory."

With two other malls less than 30 minutes away, Rice said the abandoned mall was all but forgotten by community members. In its prime, the mall was a reliable place for Rice's mother, who raised three kids by herself, to shop on a budget. That's hard to find nowadays, Rice said.

"I look for bargains and it’s like, to me, none of the malls have them. All the stores seem really expensive," she added.

Many shoppers remain unphased by mall closures because they can shop online or find another mall in close proximity, but retail workers are often left hurting.

The industry has shed 87,000 jobs since January, following two years of growth, according to the September jobs report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the last 15 years, department store jobs decreased by 25 percent, according to BLS data compiled by The New York Times.

On the other hand, the number of e-commerce positions rose 334 percent, and that number continues to grow.

Labor advocates say that changes in the job market on the whole have coincided with a culture shift among employees in the retail industry.

"I don't think that anyone now is looking at retail as a career," said Alfredo Duran, a member of the Retail Action Project who has worked in the industry for more than 20 years. "They think that it's just something temporary until something better comes up."

Those positions degraded after years of decreased training, benefits and advancement opportunities for employees, said Eno Awotoye, a former Macy's employee who is a member of Applebaum's Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

This dilemma is evidenced by a drop in wages for entry-level employees, many of whom act as the face of the business. Data from the Economic Policy Institute compiled for NBC News shows that wages for retail workers in non-supervisory roles dropped 12.2 percent from 1979 to 2012 when adjusted for inflation. These positions make up 86 percent of the retail workforce.

"I think that any business that does not care for the workers is going to end up with workers that don’t care about the business," she said.

Amazon's recent "Jobs Day," during which it aimed to hire 50,000 new employees, reflects a push to increase the size of the e-commerce workforce as the retail workfroce shrinks.

"The industry is changing. In some locations where you may have fewer in-store associates, you may see more employees working in the supply chain, delivery and services," said Jason Brewer, vice president of communication and state affairs at the Retail Industry Leaders Association. "No doubt that as the industry changes, the number and types of jobs will evolve."

However, these jobs, mainly for warehouses that ship packages to customers, may not be a viable replacement for traditional retail positions, said Applebaum, the union president.

"The people who worked in the stores brought a certain set of skills toward dealing with customers. They are not the people who need other skills for working in the distribution centers," he said.

And Awotoye said that a less-skilled workforce may have contributed to the decline in foot traffic at malls in the first place, since good customer service provides consumers with an incentive to shop in-store instead of online. 

A 2014 study commissioned by analytics company RetailNext showed that only 29 percent of consumers surveyed said that retail sales associates are knowledgeable and helpful. 

"If a company does not really value its workers, and does not provide the training needed, nobody is going to know how to sell merchandise or sell it to such an extent that the company can profit," Awotoye said.

Applebaum said it's not too late for companies to recuperate from these losses: "I think that retailers, if they want to compete in this new environment, are going to have to understand that workers are the real magic of brick-and-mortar retail stores and they have to make fair investments there."

Read the other part in this series on how malls in America are changing as the retail industry evolves here.

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