American Malls Are Closing: How Retail Changed (And I Did Too)

 
 

J.Crew's tweedy blazers and outrageously styled outfits captured my fashion loving heart from the moment I started paying attention. So when I read in The New Yorker recently that their sales have plummeted the last two years, they are two billion dollars in debt, and creative director Jenna Lyons has stepped down, it made my heart hurt…. a lot.

And it’s not just J.Crew, you guys. Another longtime favorite of mine, The Limited, filed for Chapter 11 in January, and closed all of its stores. Gap and Macy’s have both announced store closures recently (225 since 2015 for Gap, and 63 stores and 10,000 jobs cut last week for Macy’s), and retail analyst Jan Rogers Kniffen told CNBC that he predicts "400 of America’s 1,100 enclosed malls will close in the coming years, and only 250 of those remaining will thrive.” What in the world is going on?!!

A local mall in ruins (Photo Credit: Joshua Johnson)

A local mall in ruins (Photo Credit: Joshua Johnson)

Reading these (depressing) stats got me all nostalgic for the early days of J’s Everyday Fashion. Looking back, it certainly felt as if all of us shopped at the same places, didn’t it? It was Limited, Gap, Banana and LOFT, head-to-toe. We loved our dependable mall brands and stuck with them, sharing our favorite finds and best tips for scoring discounts. In some ways I miss those days and will always hold J.Crew in high regard (Jenna Lyons is a creative genius, you’ll never convince me otherwise), but I also embody the exact shopping behaviors described in these articles, which are contributing to the downturn of these companies and shuttering hundreds of American malls. It got me wondering: do we (me and you) still have a lot in common? Do you relate to these new shopping behaviors the way that I do? Have all of us changed together? Here's what the articles point to:         

1.     Millenials are spending more money on experiences and not things. (Yes! I've had the same clothing budget since 2007, but my budget for travel has increased exponentially.)

2.     Millenials rarely go to the mall. (In just a few years, my shopping shifted from 95% at the mall, to 95% online. And my in-person shopping is mostly consignment and discount stores like Ross – not the mall.)

3.     The rise of Amazon fashion, which has been predicted to take the lead as the biggest US apparel retailer in 2017. (It’s my new favorite place for clothes. We also buy groceries from Amazon – how can you not with Prime?!)

4.     Less loyalty to brands, and more of a focus on being price savvy. (Price savvy is my middle name. I’ve always blogged about the best mall deals I could find, but then new online stores started beating even those great prices. I clearly have some weak brand loyalty, because I did start shifting a good amount of my shopping over to the “even better deals.”)

A local mall in ruins (Photo Credit: Joshua Johnson)

A local mall in ruins (Photo Credit: Joshua Johnson)

Which begs the next question: where do we shop now? Because maybe like me, you’ve been feeling a little lost on this subject? For the last few years, I’ve been in a bit of a shopping limbo – a weird mix of being bored to tears with a good amount of what’s higher priced at the mall (or rather what those stores sell online, because let’s be real, I never go to the mall anymore), but also feeling untrusting of spending too much (or any!) money with the crop of super affordable foreign brands and “fast fashion” that seem to pop up everyday.

Maybe they are leftover habits from “dependable mall brand days” gone by, but I struggle with trusting any new-to-me websites unless they offer free shipping and take returns. There's a good amount of sizing and quality continuity you can count on with a mall brand, and you will definitely get reliable customer service there. (Which is why when I do find a good one, I make sure to share it with you guys!)

What I'm really heedful of though, are the online megastores based in Asia (SheIn, ChicWish, Choies, Romwe, DressLily, Rose Gal, SammyDress, to name a few) and flash sale sites where everything is adorable, but only costs $5. These sites often post images of designer clothing and not what they actually sell, use cheap quality, and refuse refunds to customers, and I can't imagine the poor working conditions and low wages for the people making the clothes if prices are that low? (My rule is: If something seems off, it probably is!) Even when I see how adorable (!!) their designs are, and know it would probably make my blog more popular if I were featuring those sites, I just can’t do it in good conscience. As a full-time blogger, when these sites reach out about working together, I just hit "delete" and move on. (Note: I worked with one of them one time in 2012, but haven't responded to requests since.)

 
Back in the day (2010) - wearing Head-to-toe Banana Republic

Back in the day (2010) - wearing Head-to-toe Banana Republic

 

As I write this today, the question “where do I shop?” feels complicated and like there isn't an easy answer other than to say I’m striving for balance. As you’ll read in my book when it comes out this fall, fair trade and the environmental impact of clothing has become a bigger part of my fashion journey. I’m not dropping everything and running for the hills to live in a van and only wear organic cotton, but I will avoid the retailers I know for sure are bad. (To use a food metaphor I’m nowhere near being 100% organic, but I’m also not including McDonald’s in my diet, no matter how much people go crazy for the McRib.) I feel pretty far from either extreme with my shopping; I certainly land somewhere in the middle. 

It’s a confusing time to be a shopper who is price conscious and wants fun, statement-making clothes, but also quality and ethics at the same time. Very rarely do I feel totally confident in what I’m buying so I tend to spread out my consumption across the mall brands I still love – JCPenney, Nordstrom, Macy’s, American Eagle, Kohl'sJ.Crew Factory (which is seeing huge growth, even as the parent brand is struggling), new favorites Amazon, ThredUp and Everlane (I’m obsessed – a post with them coming soon!), and a mix of international and affordable brands I shop more sparingly: Zara, H&M, ASOS, Charlotte Russe and Forever 21. (Again, I’m nowhere near perfect, and this article may be about shopping but my biggest focus is still on re-wearing what I already own, not buying new.)

Now it’s your turn to spill the beans, because I really want to know: Where do your retail loyalties currently lie? In a complicated shopping landscape, are you still shopping American malls, mostly buying from international discount sites, or doing a mix of both? Please share your preferences, as well as any retailers you love that I may be missing -  in the interest of girl talk but also to help shape future blog content. I want to know where you're shopping these days, because the answer, it seems, is much more complicated than it ever was before.

*****

Stats referenced in this post come from these articles, which I highly recommend for further reading:
The New Yorker "Why J.Crew's Vision of Preppy America Failed"
Business of Fashion "Why Americans Aren't Shopping"
Business of Fashion "J.Crew, Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch: The Trouble With America's Most Beloved Mall Brands"
Buzzfeed "Here's Why You Should Think Twice Before Clicking On That $12 Dress On Facebook"

 

A local abandoned mall (Photo Credit: Joshua Johnson)

A local abandoned mall (Photo Credit: Joshua Johnson)

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