Why Online Shopping Will Never Completely Replace the Mall

Jessica Schiffer

If there’s one place that’s been central to the American experience for the last fifty or so years, it’s the shopping mall. Though its associations vary from being overcrowded and tasteless, to shilling overpriced elitism, it would be hard for anyone to deny that, at some point in their lives, the mall held a specific allure. Much of that allure derives from the aspiration inherent in shopping—the desire to better yourself, and thus, your life—and that longing is nowhere near disappearing. However, malls specifically have also excelled at providing shoppers with a sense of discovery and community that new options like online shopping simply lack.

Unfortunately, the ease and anonymity of online shopping is eroding the popularity of in-store shopping, as a recent study predicted that 15% of malls will close in the next ten years alone. There is even a website devoted to tracking each newly shuttered mall, called—wait for itDeadMalls.com. So I can’t argue with reality: malls are certainly a dying breed. I can, however, lament their extinction and what I believe comes with it. Of course, it’s a first-world problem if there ever was one—miniscule in the scheme of issues the world needs to work out—but I know that Cher Horowitz, if no one else, would understand my grief here.

See, at the mall, you can stumble upon a new store—the edgy Hot Topic or risqué Wet Seal in your teens, perhaps—and, in doing so, explore a new identity. In the past, you could rebel with an extra ear piercing at Claire’s, flirt with your first boyfriend or girlfriend at Johnny Rockets and try on your first prom dress (or an anti-prom t-shirt, if that was more your style) all in one go. In the present, you might shop for furniture with your first live-in boyfriend, buy gifts for a pregnant friend, and purchase the interview outfit that you’re wearing when you land your dream job. The mall has been as much a place to grow and self-discover as it’s been a place to spend cash, and that’s made the actual shopping going on a lot more memorable. Stores and the brands they carry become evocative of our own experiences.

The stream of items flowing into our homes from the click of our computers has become so common, and so anticlimactic, that our purchases lose a lot of the associations they once held: what we were feeling when we tried the item on, perhaps, and what compelled us to buy it; why we were shopping in the first place; who we were with, or, perhaps, avoiding; etc. In effect, the Internet has stripped our consumer habits of their unexpected saving grace—the very personal experiences (dare I say, the nostalgia?) that underline why we go shopping.

And, unlike online shopping, the mall isn’t easily curated to specific tastes: it forces a variety of aesthetics and price points under one roof. You may not think you like certain brands, but you’ll still have to pass them regularly en route to your favorite store. You might even find yourself venturing into the very territory you once wrote off if something in the window catches your eye. Online, on the other hand, we tend to have our favorite shops that we return to, time and time again. Knowing what we like is no crime, but it does make for less spontaneity and variety in the items we purchase.

So online shopping may be today’s most popular option, but it will never live up to all that the mall delivers. Crowds and lines and smelly fast food annoy me as much as the next girl, but they’re a small price to pay for the various stamps on my memory that many malls have produced. There isn’t much to say about the newer items in my closet—purchased, you guessed it, online—but I can unleash entire chapters at the mere sight of pieces purchased at the mall. There’s something to be said for that, isn’t there? For owning things that transport us somewhere, somewhere other than the warm glow of a screen.


Are you a mall fan, too? Or are you happy to see them fade away with the rise of online shopping? Sound off in the comments!

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