Brief History of Shopping Malls in America and in U.S. Culture

Have you ever strolled through your local mall and wondered how it all began? 

For many shoppers, malls transport them to a time gone by. You may have grown up in a suburban community where visiting the shopping mall with friends was a rite of passage. Or, today with your busy schedule, the mall allows you to get all shopping done quickly and efficiently.

Malls have been part of the American culture for as long as you can remember. But what is the history of shopping malls?

You may be surprised to find out the storied past of shopping malls and how these buildings have shaped consumer behavior. But, as online shopping and changing consumer habits prevail, will shopping malls survive? Read on to discover the interesting facts of shopping mall history. 

The Beginning of Malls in America 

What is the history of shopping malls in America? To discover this long history, step back in time. The first American shopping mall, founded by J.C. Nichols Company, opened in 1922 in Missouri.

The Country Club Plaza revolutionized shopping during those years. This was the first time Americans could browse in an indoor shopping mall and pick and choose from a variety of stores. While department stores were nothing new in this era, the launch of the mall would change consumer habits for decades to come. 

After The Country Club Plaza opened, other shopping malls began to develop across the country. Into the 1920s and 1930s, popular malls took over states like Ohio, Texas, Michigan, and others. 

The Growth Period 

In the early 19th century, shopping malls slowly gained notoriety. But it wasn’t until the 1950s that expansion took off. Many historians will argue that this was the decade when the history of shopping malls in America began. 

When you shop in your local mall, do you ever think about the layout or access to heating or air conditioning? You can thank architect Victor Gruen for your blissful shopping experience. This Austrian-born architect revolutionized malls by creating a specific floor layout in his first mall in Edina, Minnesota.

Improved Architecture and Features 

Gruen’s design is what shopping malls to this day mimic. He made malls accessible to vehicles by creating a dedicated car parking area and surrounding the space with enclosed stores.

Gruen also introduced heating and air conditioning in extreme climates such as the Valley Shopping Center in Wisconsin in 1955. 

A Place to Market and Socialize 

By the 1960s and 1970s, malls become the ultimate marketing opportunity for brands and community gathering spots.

Brands would put on demonstrations or advertise products in the mall communal areas or anchor department stores. And during this decade, when it was common for women to be homemakers, the mall became the perfect spot to shop and socialize. 

Around the holidays, many malls had eye-catching Christmas displays and opportunities for children to take photos with Santa Claus. It became apparent during these decades that the mall was more than an area to shop, but a place to live, enjoy, and be seen. 

Malls Transform to Experiences 

Around the 1980s and 1990s, malls grew larger and became more interactive. Suburban malls transformed to include more than stores, but large food courts, restaurants, and even movie theaters. 

1990s teenager television shows, movies, and magazines centered around shopping malls. Now defunct brands like Delia’s, Limited, and Sharper Image once held major real estate in malls.

Back in these decades, groups of friends or family would visit the mall to purchase necessities and also to eat or enjoy entertainment. 

Changing Times and Consumer Tastes 

By the early 2000s, it seemed mall improvements and growth were at a standstill. While shopping malls were still popular for purchasing or weekend entertainment, stores and brands didn’t see an important change coming: online shopping.

The internet revolutionized the way average consumers shopped. Shoppers began to substitute mall visits for browsing online. And experiential advantages that malls once had like food courts began to lose popularity. 

Preference for Online 

By the mid-2000s, teenagers and young adults started to prefer fast-casual restaurants and shopping online. While some mall stores were able to keep up with this shift and quickly launch full-service websites, smaller boutiques could not survive. 

Shopping Malls Today and in the Future 

What does the history of malls reveal about the future? While even the largest mall owners and brands can’t tell the future of the industry, the data reveals the struggle and difficult times ahead.

According to Time, analysts believe that in 2022, 1 in every 4 malls across the country will shut down. 

Besides the commercial real estate impact of this trend, jobs and countless businesses will be threatened. If stores are unable to keep up with the preference for online shopping and cannot find creative ways to encourage in-store shopping, they will not survive.

And in a post-pandemic world, the need for social distancing may further deter shopping in enclosed spaces. This could hurt retail for years to come. 

Abandoned Shopping Malls 

Will we see abandoned shopping malls in the future? What will happen to these impressive and large buildings across the country? While the future of shopping malls does not look promising, the need for buying goods in person is still existent.

Grandeur Still Exists 

There are aging populations that may struggle to shop online and enjoy an outing to a mall. And, large retail brands still rent spaces in attractive tourist destinations like the Mall of America in Minnesota.

According to Property Manager Insider, these are the largest malls in the country. But, only time will reveal more about the likelihood of malls in America’s future.

The History of Shopping Malls Has Shaped American Consumers Forever 

The history of shopping malls reveals an interesting story that once appeared to have a successful ending.

Shopping mall technology and experiences revolutionized the way Americans purchased goods from the 1920s to the 1950s. From the 1960s to the 1990s, shopping malls proved to be much more than just a place to buy shoes or clothing.

Large malls transformed to include experiences like holiday displays, movie theaters, and food courts. But, by the 2000s, shoppers’ habits and preferences for buying online began to way on the profits and sustainability of malls. And today, it is projected that many malls across the country may become abandoned.

While the future of malls is uncertain, history reveals a lot about American culture and influence. If you found this historic recap insightful, then be sure to check out our other history stories.  

Clare Louise

Clare Louise