Welcome to our column, "Hey, Quick Question," where we investigate seemingly random happenings in the fashion and beauty industries. Enjoy!
Here at Fashionista, we've been reading about and occasionally covering the apparent death of the American mall for quite some time. But aside from projections that 25 percent of malls will close in the next five years due to more convenient (online) or entertaining alternatives, and the myriad ways in which those still standing are revamping themselves to incite foot traffic, we've been wondering, lately, about the fate of the actual word, "mall." No longer does the phrase, "Let's go to the mall," evoke the same joy as it did in the '80s and '90s, and no longer are malls a go-to setting in film and television; and retailers and mall developers seem acutely aware of that — but why?
Over the past year or so, we've noticed a trend of retail establishments that generally fit within the mall category, seemingly making efforts to distance themselves from that word. Los Angeles, a city in which organized clusters of brick-and-mortar stores are still quite popular, offers some examples. Take a look at any of the marketing materials, from websites to social media to press releases, of any of the city's major mall destinations (Beverly Center, Westfield Century City, The Grove, The Americana), and you won't find many, if any, mentions of the word "mall." Westfield Century City (which many still refer to as Century City Mall despite its recent, glitzy revamp)'s website, for instance, features language like "Center Info" and "Center Map." And after publishing stories about them, PR reps for not one but two major Los Angeles-area malls have sent me emails politely requesting that I use an alternative to the word "mall" as a descriptor, but none were willing to comment for this story regarding why. Though, Westfield co-CEO Steven Lowy did tell Business of Fashion recently, "The word 'mall' is a dated word," adding, "It's been lost in the vernacular."
This is a phenomenon outside of LA, too: In a recent study detailing the more than $8 billion malls have spent on renovations in the last three years, real estate services firm JLL found that 18.9 percent of the malls it looked at had removed the word "mall" from their names during renovations: Gateway Mall became Shoppes at Gateway; Crossroads Mall became Crossroads Village; Fairview Mall became Fairview Town Center, and so on. But when — and why — did "mall" become such a dirty word for mall developers and their marketing teams?
Veteran retail expert Jan Rogers Kniffen says that while the concept of using wording like "center" and "shops at" is nothing new, the word's negative connotation is. "I think now, we think of malls as these things that double as minimum security prisons or something because they're so boring to visit and so walled in, and now they're not the cool, new place to be," he tells me over the phone. The recent negative news stories about malls closing — there's even a whole website dedicated to this phenomenon called DeadMalls.com — is enough to make any smart marketer want to disassociate from that branding.
"If you're a publicist, why wouldn’t you just as soon call them something else?" he asks. "Everything's marketing in retailing." He also sees a trend among mall developers towards making their establishments feel smaller and more local and individualized; a generic term like "mall" goes against that. There's also a trend of adding on establishments and experiences that aren't typically associated with malls, like five-star restaurants, high-end brands, event spaces and more.
Still, Kniffen thinks it will be a while before Merriam-Webster is announcing the word's removal from the dictionary (which still likely wouldn't happen given the word's alternate meanings but you get it): "I'm positive that I won't live long enough to see 'mall' leave the lexicon; you may live long enough to see the word 'mall' leave the lexicon," he says, especially as this trend of mall rebrands continues. "There's clearly going to be a lot more emphasis placed — whether it's in the naming or whether it's in the advertising or whether it's in the promotion of the center — to things that are more local-feeling and more experiential," he adds. "[Foot traffic] is falling single digits every year to enclosed malls and as long as that's true, they're going to try to make them [sound] different enough that you'll come there."
Of course, marketers can't stop those of us that still have the word "mall" in our vocabularies from using it, but as younger people grow up hearing that word less, it really could start to become dramatically less popular. Though with malls maintaining popularity in other regions like Dubai, and with their prevalence in classic films like "Clueless" and "Mallrats," a total erasure of the term is difficult to imagine.
Homepage photo: @westfieldcenturycity/Instagram