How online shoppers are turning malls into zombies

The web is transforming retail in a manner perhaps not seen since the Industrial Revolution. In just a couple of decades, Amazon and smaller e-commerce companies are grabbing a bigger slice of the market.

This is especially true of the United States. Elsewhere, change proceeds at a slower speed, but it is inexorable. It will come, mostly thanks to declining costs of smartphones.

Make no mistake. Americans are still massively making their purchases at physical stores. In the last quarter of 2016, reports the New York Times, “Americans spent $102.7 billion in online sales, which was 8.3 percent of the overall total of $1.24 trillion in retail sales.”

A lot of that money, the paper says, was spent at strip malls, a uniquely American shopping complex of separate shops aligned along parking lots, with everything from barber shops to fashionable restaurants. Yet those are disappearing, too.

The reason is that they were often an outgrowth of large malls that are taking a hit from online retail. Why would anyone drive for miles if you can order from your phone? As that consumer traffic dies, so do the commercial hives they were feeding.

And as the Times’ report showed, this has led to ‘zombie’ malls, with operating escalators and the lights on, with shuttered shops and empty corridors. Your writer was misled by a photo on the article. At first glance, it looked like a prison, with a large, two floor central hall flanked by cells with bars. Only a more careful look revealed it was a ‘zombie’ mall.

Just like nature, the ecosystem in an economy develops in unpredictable manners. Some big malls and employers —including huge online retailers, like Amazon— promote economic activity around them, with small shops popping up under their shadow. Other large stores wither all other types of commercial life in their vicinity. In all cases, once the planet disappears, so do the satellites that were spinning around them.

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