Back in the Nineties and early 2000s, the shopping centre was one of the few places groups of teens could hang out away from home. It’s something that was common the world over – especially the US. We saw it in movies too: remember Cher and online co hitting the mall in Clueless? Or the Mean Girls gang doing the same in their matching pink tops?
For those with a nascent interest in fashion, the mall also presented an opportunity to spend pocket money on clothes at brands like New Look, Bay Trading and Kookai. My go-to look took a lead from the band All Saints – skinny-strapped tanks with baggy combat trousers and Buffalo platform trainers. Juicy Couture flannel tracksuits, boot-leg jeans and Spice Girls-style minidresses were also looks that defined the era.
Today though, the shopping centre looks very different. Traditional malls across the UK are struggling as bigger chains like Debenhams, that would normally bring in a lot of rental income, edge closer to collapse. And the demise of brands like BHS and Toys R Us has meant that nearby tenants that would previously have benefited from peripheral foot traffic can no longer justify high mall rents.
As for shoppers, a significant chunk of their spending has moved online. Why spend a day working through your shopping list at Festival Place in Basingstoke, or The Oracle in Reading, when you can order everything you need from Amazon with next-day delivery?
The way teens shop for clothes has changed too. While I used to spend the best part of a day dipping into different high street shops in pursuit of a new outfit for a school friend’s birthday, today’s teens scroll websites like Asos and Boohoo for their fashion kicks.
It’s no wonder that Whiteley’s in London’s Bayswater is being partially converted into a hotel and luxury flats. Meanwhile a quick Google search for “abandoned malls” reveals – in compelling photos – just how widespread the problem has become in the US.
The recent lockdown seems to have been the final straw for several major shopping centres in the UK, with many retail tenants unable to pay their rent. Back at the end of March, when stores were first forced to close, Intu, which owns 17 UK shopping centres including the Trafford Centre just outside Manchester, and Lakeside in Essex, said that it received just 29 percent of rent owed from tenants for the first quarter.
Three months on, the situation has worsened for Intu, as on Wednesday it emerged that it is preparing to enter into administration. The company, which is struggling with £4.5 billion of debt, is in the process of negotiating new deals with lenders, but as far as The Telegraph’s Chief City Commentator Ben Marlow is concerned, the “zombified” organisation isn’t worth saving.
As for malls still in business, the reopening of stores doesn’t mean that their future is secure. A lot of the high street brands that typically populate shopping centres are shifting to a more e-commerce-focused business model, which is far cheaper to run. Zara owner Inditex recently announced that it would be closing over 1,200 stores globally after online sales soared by 95 percent during lockdown, while Monsoon, which has been bought out of administration by founder Peter Simon, is to permanently close 35 stores.
That’s not to say that the mall is set to become a relic of a bygone era – savvy shopping centre owners are redeveloping and reinventing these spaces to accommodate the needs of the modern consumer.
This might involve blurring the lines between indoor and outdoor spaces, and giving over less space to retail stores and more to restaurants, spas and boutique gyms. There might be more communal seating too – an effort to create what’s known as a “third space” for people to spend time in, outside of the home and office. All of these tools help create new reasons for potential shoppers to visit a mall, and ultimately spend money there.
Westfield, which has two major London outposts in White City and Stratford, is proving especially adept at this modern mall model. I live within half a mile of White City, and whenever I visit, it’s packed full of young parents who seem to treat each trip like a family day out. It’s easy to see why: along with all the usual high street stores, it has a large Vue cinema, a well-curated food court, a boutique spin studio, All Star Lanes bowling, Puttshack mini golf, and places to entertain the kids like Little Gym and Kidzania. At one end is a pedestrianised outdoor strip lined with restaurants, on the other is a forecourt which hosts a Santa’s Grotto and Christmas market in winter.
For malls like this that have been nimble enough to adapt to changing consumer needs, not only are they less likely to lose a brand like Zara as a tenant (because foot traffic is still strong), but if they do, it won’t be the end of the world.
Certainly, executives at the mall giant are optimistic about the future. “It’s often the very challenging times, which brings out the creative side in some of the best brands,” says Myf Ryan, Chief Marketing Officer Europe at Westfield. “You would have seen [news] recently around the new Harrods outlet which will launch in Westfield London in July. That’s a very interesting innovation with social distancing restrictions that are in place, being able to create this dedicated two storey store which will allow Harrods to launch their summer sale and allow people to shop safely in a really brilliant opportunity. I think it’s incredibly creative.”
It’s this kind of open-mindedness that Ryan hopes can save malls post-lockdown. “While it has been the longest period of time that I think any shopping centre has ever been shut, we do know that after this period of lockdown, people in the UK are wanting to take steps to return to the new normal. We’ve seen that consistently across Europe. We’ve seen it within the US. And this does include re-establishing the habits that they had, like shopping, which many people enjoyed pre-lockdown.”
With a focus on restaurants, activities and social spaces, there will still be plenty of ways for teens to spend their pocket money in the new modern mall – assuming there’s anything left over from the latest Asos or Boohoo spree – and there’ll be a lot to love for their parents and grandparents too.