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National Editorials & Columns

Suburban mall is an endangered species

The clerks were standing around in the fancy lotion shop, pretending to look busy. No one was even inside looking. The only customer in the home electronics store appeared to be returning something. The shoe store had a few shoppers, but there was plenty of room to walk around without running into anyone.

The few people ambling around the uncrowded mall were not carrying shopping bags. They stopped at the kiosks in the main aisle and looked at the tie-dyed T-shirts and the calendars and the gold necklaces, but pretty much everyone who wanted a gold necklace already had one. The CD/DVD store looked pretty empty, too. The fancy card shop was deserted; the As Seen on TV store, empty.

It was 4 in the afternoon on a weekday. Most people were still at work except for teenage girls, who arrived in groups of three or four and disappeared into the movie theater. Maybe all these stores are packed the rest of the time, but while I was there, the mall was scarily empty. Maybe when the movies let out there is a rush.

But one little shop was booming while the others languished. It was the smallest store in the mall, and it had six clerks who were helping two customers apiece. It was the cellphone store, and you’d have thought it was giving away free bacon. I think one of the people in line was the manager of the fancy card shop.

The smallest store that’s probably paying the least rent is raking in the most dollars. Each cellphone costs, what, $200? $400?

“But sometimes the phone is free. No wonder there’s a line,” you might say. Yes, if you commit to a monthly plan that will cost you, on the low end, $2,400 by the time you finish it in two years, the store will give you some kind of phone. Not the best phone, but a phone.

So the cellphone store “gives” you a $200 phone and you give it $2,400 or more. Wow, what a bargain!

OK, I’m going to say a stupid old-man thing. Here it comes: “My first car didn’t cost $2,400.” The one I’m driving now didn’t cost much more. (I traded in my clunker for a beater.)

This “bargain” is killing the other stores in the mall. I wonder how much the average shopper spends at the gift and card shop? How much will those roving gangs of teens spend at the DVD store? Anything close to $2,400 over two years? And if you spend $100 a month on your phone plan, that’s $100 a month that you’re not spending on fancy lotions, new shoes or DVDs.

If only that were the end of it. Smartphones also let you check and compare prices among stores. It’s called the “showroom effect.”

Say you are shopping for a new TV. You go to the electronics store in the mall, find the model you like and scan the bar code into your smartphone. Then the phone will tell you where you can buy the TV cheaper. Places like Best Buy become the showrooms for and other online retailers that pay no rent for space in the mall.
The next time you wonder how an online store can offer free shipping, maybe it’s because the online retailer is paying rent only on a cheap warehouse, not an expensive storefront.

As I was soaking up the frenzy at the phone store, I noticed a gaggle of teens streaming out of the multiplex, all of them phoning or texting as they passed me, the card shop, the DVD store and the lotion store on the way out to the parking lot. Taking a quick look around, I noticed that every single person in the place was on a phone.

People can send a birthday greeting card from their phone, they can listen to music on it, they can watch a movie, they can buy lotion cheaper online. How long can these other stores last?

Jim Mullen’s newest book is called “Kill Me, Elmo: The Holiday Depression Fun Book.” You can reach him at

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