Shopping malls have been woven into the fabric of American identity. In 1960, just four years after the first mall, there were 4,500 large shopping complexes in the United States, which amounts to at least three new shopping centres opening every day. By 1975, malls and shopping centres accounted for 33% of all retail sales in America. That set up the 80s and 90s to be the peak of American mall culture. Just watch Netflix’s Stranger Things, which is a combination of pure nostalgia and Lovecraftian horror. The show’s third season took place almost entirely in the small town’s new shopping mall, showing how malls have been central to the lives of Americans over the past few decades.
American mall culture peaked in 1992 with its final evolution: the mega-mall. Fittingly in the same state as America’s first mall, the Mall of America (MoA), in Bloomington, Minnesota, spans a whopping 5.6 million square feet with over 500 stores, 10,000 employees, a theme park with 27 rides, an aquarium, a wedding chapel, and a movie theatre. The mega-mall was immensely profitable. Reports showed that consumers were 50% more likely to buy something at an attraction-filled mega-mall than at a regular mall, leading to several more mega-malls being built across the 50 states. But mega-malls’ gargantuan size, coupled with an unsustainable rate of construction, would lead to the collapse of the mall culture itself. But the Mall of America, the original mega-mall, has not collapsed, but it has had to adapt.
Jill Renslow, the Executive Vice President of Business Development and Marketing of Mall of America, talks about how the company has renewed its focus on people: “It’s all about the people. You have to focus especially on your internal people. Value them. Treat them well. Bring them in for the ride. Have them at the table and listen to their voices”. Three decades later, in addition to its speciality stores, Mall of America hosts more than 400 events each year, from concerts and celebrity appearances to fashion shows. It has become a buzzing hub of entertainment and a destination in itself, with upward of 40 million people from across the world visiting each year before the pandemic and, in turn, generating close to 2 billion USD in revenue.
As Jill explains, what they do at Mall of America is about so much more than making money – it’s about “leading with purpose”. On average, Jill says, 12,000 USD per day is raised for Mall of America’s community and charity partners. For that reason, the MoA has become a true cornerstone of the Minnesota community; the organization works incredibly hard to give back and support those who need it most. During the pandemic, Mall of America utilized its facilities to set up Minnesota’s largest vaccination site. In addition to partnering with non-profit organizations, Mall of America has even donated warehouse space to the charity Every Meal, which used the space to distribute much-needed food to disadvantaged families during the pandemic. Mall of America also created a rent-free retail space called Community Commons for retailers whose stores were damaged during the civil unrest of spring 2020.
Part of avoiding the collapse of the mega-mall has also been innovation. With so much infrastructure, the mall has had to welcome cutting-edge energy and cost-savings techniques. According to Jill Renslow, “We were green before green was cool. From the very beginning, our organisation was at the forefront of developing and constructing a building that was sustainable. We have more than eight acres of skylight in the building for solar energy. We do not have central heating – it’s all by body heat and skylights. We have more than 30,000 live plants and 300 live trees in the mall to provide natural oxygen. We don’t use pesticides in our theme park. We have all LED lighting in our parking ramps, the largest parking garage lighting conversion in the nation. We have a major recycling centre, where we recycle the majority of our waste. We work with local hog farmers to give them all of our food waste”.
A 2017 Credit Suisse report estimated that one in four US malls would close by 2022. The pandemic only accelerated that trend. And although the MoA had some rough patches during the pandemic, it has bounced back with renewed vigour. The MoA is still central to the Minnesota community, and it will continue fighting to be the past, present, and future of the American retail experience.