Death of the mall

Werribee Plaza - Main MallThere are many prognostications on this topic, or maybe LinkedIn’s algorithm is just feeding me stuff it thinks I am interested in.

If you want the short version, NO – malls won’t die. The longer version is for retail geeks only.

My argument is based largely on the law of antifragility – as articulated by NN Taleb. To summarise a book that runs to almost 600 pages is risky, but let me try:

First, you have to understand these three ideas, all extracted from Taleb’s book:

Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile.

That is the definition of something being antifragile.

An example of something that gets better with stress is for instance your muscles – vigorous exercise puts muscles under stress, but makes it better in the long run.

Getting a vaccine means you are infected with a mild dose of the infection (the stressor), allowing your body to build a better immunity – which is better in the long run.

In the world of business, some competition is healthy and makes you a better organisation.

Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better. This property is behind everything that has changed with time: evolution, culture, ideas, revolutions, political systems, technological innovation, cultural and economic success, corporate survival, the rise of cities, cultures, legal systems, equatorial forests, bacterial resistance…even our own existence as a species on this planet.

To be antifragile is not the same as being resilient – that is important to understand.

Crucially, if antifragility is the property of all those natural (and complex) systems that have survived – (AND NOTE THIS…)  depriving these systems of volatility, randomness, and stressors will harm them.

The longer something has survived, the longer it will survive. And NOT putting a system under stress will harm the system. (You can’t Netflix and chill forever – your body will atrophy, right?)

You may be tempted to think that it is silly to argue that something will survive because it always has. But that is the same as thinking that just because things fall to the ground because of gravity, sooner or later it will stop doing so. A law is a law.

Today’s pop music lasts a few weeks, before it’s forgotten. Classical music has been around for hundreds of years. Which type of music do you think will be around in 50 years? Bieber or Mozart?

If you could only choose one and had to invest ALL your money, would you rather invest it in a three-month old startup, or in Commonwealth Bank that has been around (in different guises) for decades?

 Why will malls be around for another hundred years?

Because the mall has been around for thousands of years.

According to Casson & Lee, the origins of the market are obscure, but substantial documentary evidence survives from the eleventh century onward, when chartered markets and new towns were established across Western Europe.

World travellers still visit Souks in Morocco. A souq/ souk was originally an open-air marketplace, historically held outside cities at locations where incoming caravans stopped and merchants displayed their goods for sale.

So, if markets have been around for a thousand years or more, what are the odds that they will be around in another ten, twenty or even hundred years?

The longevity of the market is not only congruent with the philosophy of antifragility, it makes common sense at the level of ‘behavioural economics.’

Back in the mid 90s, I articulated (in my thesis) the two kinds of shoppers:

  • Type Q: The functional, utilitarian patron who wants a Quick shop
  • Type R: The hedonic shopper who is in a Relaxed state

My little typology never caught on, but the idea of the leisure shopper vs functional shopper did. I also addressed then specifically how the existence of the mall was justified because it met the needs of these shoppers. I postulated then that there are six intrinsic values that are addressed by patronising a mall, and upon review (20 years later) they all still hold true.

I won’t address all, but suffice to say that the mall has (always) been about more than quick, convenient shopping, even though that particular ‘value’ drove rapid expansion at a certain point. Immediate gratification is important, but it is not the only reason why people go to malls.

Commentators have said for a while now that offline commerce will serve only two purposes: immediacy (stuff you need right away), and experiences (showroom, fun venues). All other commerce will happen online. That is simplistic, but that is a clear.

Mall will be around but they will be different

Surviving is not the same as staying the same.

Malls have evolved from open, to closed, to open.

Malls have been transient, became permanent, and if the pop-up fad is anything to go by, becoming transient again.

The salient point is that malls have always, and will always evolve.

Westfield Trade Centre may look very different to a Moroccan Souk, but they fulfil the same purpose. That is, both ‘markets’ address the same six values that people seek from any form of consumption, including patronage of a mall.

As long as the Mall fulfills addresses those fundamental consumption (patronage) values, it will survive and even thrive. (In a future post I will address the seven immutable truths of prosperous shopping centres.)

Next time you see an article titled ‘the death of the mall’, you can safely skip. An individual mall may die like an individual car may crash; but ‘The Mall’ is no more dying than ‘The Car’ is dying.

If you keep changing (or flipping), you won’t die.

Dennis Price : Co-Founder at www.yearone.solutions

Comments

3 comments

  1. Reade posted on May 30, 2017

    Malls will die, like in America the shopping centres experienced a boom but eventually died and abandoned and turned into a ghost town. Crime is increasing and the law can not do anything about it, robbery to stores in broad daylight in front of security and customers and the thieves showing no fear or care. This is what is putting off people going to the shopping centre and eventually they will avoid the shopping centre completely. This is what happened in the US reply

    • Don Gilbert posted on May 30, 2017

      Not being disrespectful, some of the social issues in US at grass roots are different to Oz. We fortunately have a better social security system here. reply

  2. Dennis posted on May 30, 2017

    U.S. Shopping Center Occupancy Rates Hit 6-Year High in 2014, According to ICSC and NCREIF Data reply

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