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Megan Amrich headshot

3p Weekend: Could Gen Z Save the Shopping Mall?

As the holidays approach, it turns out Gen Z may be the saving grace for a once-beloved American institution – the shopping mall.
By Megan Amrich
Gen Z

While my fellow millennials and I continue to “kill” everything (most recently the Amtrak dining car), the younger Generation Z may be the saving grace for a beloved American institution – the shopping mall.

Yes, I said the mall: the ubiquitous setting for first dates, music videos, TV shows, movies and even board games from the 1980s to the 2000s.

A new report from The NPD Group said Gen Z – the population born between the mid-1990s and early-2010s – is less likely to shop online than millennial or baby-boomer shoppers this holiday season.   

There are several factors driving this group’s shift to the return to brick-and-mortar retailers.

Marshal Cohen, chief industry advisor of The NPD Group, told CNBC in a recent interview that teens and college students – all part of GenZ – view in-store shopping as a social activity and form of entertainment, as well as an opportunity to spend time with family and friends.

And despite this generation’s concern over the environment, that isn’t necessarily a factor in Gen Zers returning to the mall. True, plenty of evidence suggests online shopping exacts a toll on the environment, and more online retailers say they are responding in kind. But even though surveys of Gen Zers indicate they care about the environment, that sentiment didn’t come through when it came to analyzing their day-to-day shopping habits.

In the end, going to the mall offers an experience that isn’t possible when shopping online.

For Gen Z, shopping malls are an escape from reality

Younger consumers are also looking for ways to interact with brands more, as they are still determining their unique style and values. No matter how interactive a website is, you can’t try on or sample a product with the same immediacy as you can in a store. A 2019 survey from A.T. Kearney found that 73 percent of shoppers ages 14-24 like discovering new products in stores.

“The discovery process in stores is a lot more immersive,” said Stephanie Wissink, an analyst with the financial institute Jeffries, in a CNBC interview. “The trial, the try on, the socialization of having others shopping with you.”

In addition to the social and practical benefits, many Gen Z consumers cite mental health reasons for shopping in stores rather than online. According to the aforementioned A.T. Kearney survey, 58 percent of shoppers age 14-24 said “browsing shelves and clothing racks allows them to disconnect from social media and the digital world.” In other words, shopping in person is not only a throwback to earlier times, but it’s a chance to unplug, even if young shoppers are buying items based on what social media influencers advertise.

Retail reality check

It’s important to note that, while younger shoppers are more likely than older generations to shop in stores as opposed to online, brick-and-mortar retail sales and earnings continue to decline.

It’s no secret that American shopping malls have faced harrowing times since internet shopping took off. So far, 2019 has seen the demise of once-popular mall retailers like Payless Shoe Stores, Dress Barn, Charlotte Russe and Charming Charlie. Other giants, ranging from Gap to Victoria’s Secret to Forever 21, have closed significant percentages of their stores this year. Many of these affected retailers focus on fast fashion, hopefully signaling a shift to more sustainable apparel trends.

Many shopping malls are looking for new ways to fill their vacant retail space while drawing in new potential shoppers. Escape rooms, medical officesco-working spacesgrocery stores and fitness centers are just some of the nontraditional occupants making an appearance in today’s malls.

And just look at this recent Wall Street Journal headline (possibly my favorite headline of the year): “What Does It Take to Get People to the Mall? Drag Queens, Racy Circus Acts and Disco Parties."

Whether or not these efforts to win back shoppers are successful is yet to be determined, but hopefully Gen Z will continue to embrace the “retro” experience of going to the mall.

After all, without shopping malls, we wouldn’t have mall walkers, the classic "How I Met Your Mother" character Robin Sparkles, or – most importantly – mall Santas. And that would make for a very unhappy holiday season, indeed.

Image credit: Dieter de Vroomen/Unsplash

Megan Amrich headshot

Megan is a writer and editor interested in sharing stories of positive change and resilience. She is the author of Show Up and Bring Coffee, a book highlighting how to support friends who are parents of disabled children. You can follow her at JoyfulBraveAwesome.com.

Read more stories by Megan Amrich