Lament for a Mall

Malls were the latest, trendiest, most oh-there thing in retail development about the time that I was in high school and college. There were a couple of them that I went to, early on, and they were … OK. A nice diversion if one was in the mood or purse for retail therapy. Most of them were enclosed, two or three levels, almost always expensively decorated, adorned with plantings, sometimes with dabs of architectural creativity here and there. All of that made sense in places where the weather was bitterly cold for at least half the year or boiling-hot for three-quarters of it – still does, in the upper mid-west and mountain west, especially in snowy winters. It was, however, a serious and time-burning excursion to go to the mall; finding a place to park nearest an entrance, walking … and walking, and walking, and carrying whatever you had purchased. If there was a nice and varied selection of shops, not wall to wall big chain outlets, exactly the same as every other mall – so much the better.

There was a certain sameness to almost all big-city malls, though – which is why I believe that all but one merged into a bland beige same-ness in my memory, no matter if they were in Burbank, Albuquerque or the Newgate Mall in South Ogden. Pretty much the same set of stores, the same look, the same amenities, and many of them hanging on by a thread at present. I suppose the reasons for this are as varied as the malls eventually weren’t. The inconvenience of the mall experience, a preference among the shopping public for on-line ordering, the fact that interesting one-off merchants were pretty much priced out of even setting up in a mall in the first place, that some malls became notorious for lawless behavior, and even something as other formats in large-scale retail becoming fashionable among the movers and shakers in our civic planners. In the city where I live now and of the four malls that I know the best, only one seems to be doing pretty well in the upscale carriage trade; expensive clothes, shoes, jewelry and household goods eventually replaced a more varied set of shops within. The second closed entirely and was transformed into Rackspace’s HQ and operating location. A third closed and was almost entirely demolished and remade into a shopping center of free-standing mercantile outlets, restaurants, a small hotel and a Drafthouse Cinema. A fourth keeps going, zombie-like; a nearly empty dead mall walking. It’s been that way for the twenty years that I have lived here. I have no idea how it remains open.

I was unexpectedly depressed and grieved by hearing that the one mall which vividly lives in mine and my daughter’s memory as the most fantastic and memorable shopping environment ever created in the heart of an urban downtown closed a couple of years ago (after a slow decline) and is now in the process of being transformed into an urban office complex with a bit of park attached. This was San Diego’s Horton Plaza … which opened in a formerly blighted set of city blocks in the mid-1980s, according to this potted history. Obviously, the designer had won the contest for creating the most colorful, confusing, exuberant and off-kilter open-air mall on the face of the earth. The central mall avenue ran diagonally, from one corner of the bloc of shops and parking to the opposite corner, zigging and zagging, so it was almost like walking the twisty lanes in a medieval European city. (and we had experienced shopping in a good few cities of that nature, so we would know.) The various levels in Horton Plaza were staggered; ramps, bridges, arcades and stairways went up and down between them. There were pavilions, bump-outs, ornamental domes and yet more arcades, a little plaza with a massive ornamental clock on the mezzanine level, colorful streaming banners, lush and well-tended plantings everywhere.

My daughter and I first visited it late in 1988, in between tours at Zaragoza AB, Spain. Because I had signed on to a second tour, the military footed the bill for a return trip to my home of record, and offered a month of leave, (IIRC) because my doing so saved them a bundle. And we were charmed and enthralled, after more than a decade away from the United States. The sky was blue overhead, from the top levels there were occasional views out over San Diego all the way to the ocean. The parking structures – and there were two, one each side of the diagonal. The one had every level named after fruits and the other named for vegetables. So, one had to remember if you were parked on the Avocado Level, or the Plum Level. We sampled the bookstores – there were two at that time, a Walden’s on an upper level and a large Brentano’s on the mezzanine. There was a Laura Ashley’s, a tiny toy store with games and puzzles, a cinema multiplex on the top level, and an Italian restaurant opposite it, with a spectacular view all the way over the downtown rooftops to Coronado Island. The usual mall outlets, of course and a couple of big department stores – but other oddball stores, such as a gourmet grocery at street level on one end of the concourse, and a yardage store at street level on the other – the only place in the US where I found lengths of silk printed to make scarves. (The pictures here give an idea of how eccentric the design was.) Yes, we thoroughly enjoyed that visit, and again some three years later when we came home from Europe for good. For the three years we were in Utah, I drove home to Mom and Dad’s for the Christmas holidays – and we made subsequent visits to Horton Plaza then as well. By 1995 I took an assignment in Texas; a much longer drive than from Utah, so we didn’t spend Christmas at Mom and Dad’s quite as often.

I think that our last visit to Horton Plaza must have been in 2008 or ’09 and it was clear that the place had declined. The Brentanos’ was closed, many of the unique stores that we remembered had been replaced by the usual outlets in malls everywhere else. The colorful banners and flags were gone as well, and all of the landscape plantings. The place looked grimy, rundown, and a bit tatty. There was no special reason to go there, really, and we left, vaguely disappointed. Mom said that all the really upscale stores had moved to Fashion Valley, north of downtown anyway.
So passed the retail glory of downtown San Diego; sad to me personally, because I remember it so fondly and so very well, much better than malls that I shopped at much more frequently. It looks from the potted history on Wikipedia that first one big anchor outlet bailed out, then the other, the cinema multiplex also closed, the specialty stores shuttered one by one as shoppers went elsewhere – nothing is more depressing than a dying mall – and soon all that was left was the faded but still colorful walls and architectural features, empty walkways and blank spaces where display windows had once been.

40 thoughts on “Lament for a Mall”

  1. Simon Property Group, a major operator of malls (including for example Lenox Square near Atlanta) plans to reopen 49 malls across the country next week. Will be interesting to see how it goes.

  2. I was always more of a country person than cityfolk, so to me the mall was always one of those “destination” kinda things–You drove over a hundred miles or so, and then spent a day shopping at one.

    When in the military, I got to observe what we might call the “Late Mall Era” during the mid-80s through to the late 90s. The closest “mall experience” we had going was The Tacoma Mall, which was kinda the blue-collar version of the ones further north. You could watch the decline, which I have to say came from three things: One, they cut back on security and allowed the “urban youth” to take over, two, the shops quit carrying things you wanted–For books, you never went to the B. Dalton, because the selection and crowding were both horrible, and then there was the Borders and Tower books up the street that had both better selection and more room. The third thing that killed the mall was the same thing that is killing big retail–The local managers have no fine-grain control over what gets stocked or when they get it.

    Say for example you have a sudden confluence of market events–Namely, sudden surge in the demand for men’s white dress shirts. Now, a lot of that is difficult to predict, but when you look around at things, you can tell when you’re going to need a bunch of those shirts to sell, because of graduations, proms, quinceañera events, military balls, and all the rest–Many of which happen in the spring. So, regular as clockwork, the demand spikes and everybody needs a new white dress shirt–Which, after just a little bit, can’t be found within forty miles of the base. And, which, ohbytheway, none of the local retailers have the flexibility to bring in supply from other stores in the region that aren’t undergoing the demand surge. So, yeah… You can’t get what you need, so what is the point of going to the mall?

    Big-box retail came in and killed the little local small retailer, who could respond to things like that surge in demand relatively easily, because the owner/manager knew to stock up for the spring surge in demand. Or, at least, they eventually learned. The benefit of volume enabled the big guys to drive the small retailer out of business via pricing, so no matter what you wanted, you eventually had to bow before the fact that they could significantly beat the price for Joe the grocer or hardware store owner. However–The big-box boys, who go by the almighty algorithm run by the marketing droids back East somewhere, lack the ability to adapt or learn. So, they’re getting eaten alive by Big Online, and we’re going to see local retail morph into something else. Yet again.

    Personally, I think the entire retail experience is going to bifurcate, and we’re going to have on the one hand Big Online doing things like responding to automatic orders for commodity items in the home and office, and then little local folk who serve the “expert interface” role that small retail used to have going for it. No matter what, you will always have that customer who wants to see and feel the product, and have someone talk to them about it.

  3. Kirk, I spent most of the 1980s to the mid-1990s overseas, so I only experienced the mall deline in small doses. Horton Plaza was one of the fun and quirky ones – and it was so much fun to visit. It really was, and I was quite genuinely heartbroken to see it decline and die.

    Another aspect to consider is my daughters’ and my joint experience in doing local markets. What we have seen in small scale, is the cost of participating in those markets: A minimal table fee … well, then, a small retailer can easily afford to participate. A market with a low table fee, yet a relatively strict policy about those goods on offer to have been manufactured by the vendor? That will mean that the goods for sale will be quirky, one-off, original, and interesting. And will sell in quantities that the vendor/artist will make a profit from participating in the enterprise.

    A high table fee, and likely no curating of the goods offered on the part of the market management? Most always, a vendor retailing mass quantities, commercially manufactured, likely as an adjunct to an established outlet. Another helping of ‘blah-same-old-same-old’ but in an open-air setting.

    I am thinking that ultimately, this is why malls came to die. Vendors below a certain threshold couldn’t afford mall rental. The boring sameness of it all. When I went recreationally shopping, I was looking for the quirky, the original, the interesting, and the relatively inexpensive, the bargain!

    Not, alas, to be found at a mall, outside of oddities like the craft shop in the South Ogden mall.

    Edited add – as for the security issues, IIRC there was a black comedian who made a remark to the effect that there were two kinds of malls: the malls where the white folks shopped, and the malls where the white folks used to shop.

  4. I got to see it on kind of a stop-motion thing–I kept returning to Fort Lewis, and you’d see how things were, then four-five years later, you’d be back and it would be almost unrecognizable. Disorienting as hell–You’d think you knew the area, where to get stuff, and then you’d come back and it’d be like “Nobody goes there, now…”.

    Things did improve. Time was that a little area in a pocket in between Lewis and McChord was a “known bad” area, and you did everything you could to keep your people from renting there. One of my peer squad leaders got pulled out of a pretty major FTX because his wife had been followed home by some gang-bangers, and she’d felt the need to empty a 15-round pistol magazine through their apartment front door. Never did find out the outcome, but there were (supposedly…) blood trails.

    Next rotation back to Lewis, that area was mostly benign, and everybody was saying it was OK to live out there…

    I think the whole “big box” mentality of shopping is going to die on the vine. What is going to take its place is “Big Internet” with little expert intermediaries nibbling around the edges, using the logistics network of “Big Internet” to facilitate it all. Part of what is going to drive this is that nobody has the broad-ranging expertise to know how to solve all problems, so you’re going to have to go to somebody who knows the right solution to your problem and who can help you navigate your way through the winding back-channels of “Big Internet” to get what you need.

    It’s like with the business–We have to bind plan packets up so that they’re sturdy enough to stay together on job sites through projects. You go to get ’em printed, and the printer no longer knows how to do it, so he hands you what you get off the home printer, anyway–A stack of sheets. So, now you need a heavy-duty stapler… Where do you go? The big-box office stores out in the hinterlands don’t stock much, so you’re wandering around looking, only to find they’ve just got the typical office-duty stuff, not staplers that can do up sixty pages of 11X17 or 24X36. If you don’t know that there are bigger staplers, you’re screwed, because you don’t exactly have access to a “Staplers ‘R Us” out in no man’s land. So… What you need is someone who can problem solve, and who you can say “Yeah, I need to bind this stuff, but I can’t find anything…”. At that point, our hypothetical intermediary introduces you to the big Swinglines and the bigger staples that they take, and your problem is solved. Or, you spend a couple of hours non-productively on the internet learning all the ins and outs of staplers… Thirty years ago, you’d have gone into the local office supply store, run by Mr. Brown and his aged wife, and they’d have set you up with what you needed. Only thing is, now? They’re long since out of business, driven out by “low, low prices…”.

    Please note that the above is simply an example. Thanks to extensive experience at adult-level “coloring between the lines”, and cutting/pasting things together, I can figure out most of that stapler stuff on my own. What’s dismayed me over the years is that there are a lot of other supposed adults out there who simply… Can’t. I look back, and what’s really disturbing is the observation of just how many of the skills of early childhood, like cutting straight lines with scissors, coloring things in, and doing “simple” office-type stuff like laminating paper has actually been required in adult life. I’m never going to forget the two weeks I spent in Germany on a detail making up new map books from recently-revised new maps they’d just issued us… There were about four of us working on that crap in a conference room, and one of us suddenly looked up with a horrified expression and said something to the effect that he’d just remembered being told by his first-grade teacher that he’d better pay attention and be neat about his work, or he’d never get anywhere in life. She’d apparently been horrified at the ragged way he was cutting his work up with scissors, and thought he was being sloppy. He’d never, ever thought that any of that stuff really had application in life, and here he was, cutting and pasting up enough 1:50 000 mapsheets to cover most of Central Germany.

    ‘Effing bizarre, when you look at it. The one class I took in high school that’s done the most for me, in life? Friggin’ typing. Typing. Everything else, I use so damn rarely that it’s ridiculous, but typing? Seems like every day of my adult life after the age of about 30, typing has been the central skill.

    Scary, TBH. Who knew?

  5. Typing … high school. (giggle) I think I had a week, maybe more of typing. And there was a conflict, so I had to drop it for a science class (IIRC) that I really needed. But my mother came up with a chart for the position of the fingers, and so that was where I really learned to type. At home.

    Using various computer programs? Picked up on the fly here and there. It wasn’t so much the various programs that I was accomplished in as a temp – it was how fast I could pick them up as required for the various job assignments.

  6. The closest “mall experience” we had going was The Tacoma Mall, which was kinda the blue-collar version of the ones further north.

    That was the first enclosed mall I ever saw. It was in 1965 and a long time friend who was in the Air Force with me worked for MONY insurance and was transferred to Tacoma. We visited while driving from LA to Boston my senior year of medical school. We had been hunting and fishing buddies and continued our friendship for many years, even as he moved around the country.

    WalMart had a lot to do with the big box store trend and that was connected to China. We will see how that works out in the next few years,

  7. Kirk: “The third thing that killed the mall was the same thing that is killing big retail–The local managers have no fine-grain control over what gets stocked or when they get it.”

    That is an interesting observation. There may be an analogy with the decline of small towns.

    Modest-sized small towns used to have a number of people like bank managers, small business owners, accountants, attorneys — people who lived locally and could make meaningful decisions based on local circumstances. In the best cases, those people were the yeast which made the bread of the community rise. As those roles were centralized in cities and individuals who could make decisions (instead of simply implementing others’ orders) were lost to the local community, it tore a major hole in the fabric of small towns.

  8. Mike K…”WalMart had a lot to do with the big box store trend and that was connected to China. We will see how that works out in the next few years”

    Interestingly, WalMart was initially a Buy-American supporter. The “Crafted With Pride in the USA Campaign”, strongly supported by Roger Milliken of Milliken Textiles, included Sam Walton among its backers. It kicked off in 1984 and also included labor unions and various celebrities.

  9. Gavin…”Modest-sized small towns used to have a number of people like bank managers, small business owners, accountants, attorneys — people who lived locally and could make meaningful decisions based on local circumstances. In the best cases, those people were the yeast which made the bread of the community rise. As those roles were centralized in cities and individuals who could make decisions (instead of simply implementing others’ orders) were lost to the local community, it tore a major hole in the fabric of small towns.”

    Historically, some level of decentralization was forced by the limitations of technology. If you were a company that had sales and/or manufacturing branches in multiple cities…and communication was only via the US Mail….you *had* to give the managers of those branches some reasonable level of autonomy and decision-making authority. This changed somewhat with the telegraph and later with the telephone and the teleprinter, but still, communications was expensive and somewhat limited. Private computer/communications networks and then the Internet changed this. Now decentralization is not a necessity but a choice.

  10. @The Other Kirk,

    Yep. Some of my friends knew all those guys who were involved, as well. I probably ran into several of the participants through mutual acquaintance, and just never realized what they were going to get themselves into. That was an interesting period.

    I know the Ranger commander was unhappy for the attention they drew, and the CSM was somewhat pissed they had missed, but then that was probably both intentional and a fortunate thing for all concerned.

    The funny ha-ha one was a few years later, when some of the gang-bangers who were trying to establish a presence in Tacoma spotted what they thought were skinheads at the Tacoma Mall. The “skinheads” were actually very junior members of the 2/75 Ranger Battalion, and phone calls got made back to the barracks, where apparently there was not a lot of supervision going on, the Battalion being on or just starting block leave.

    The actual events that took place are somewhat lost in the fog of war and junior enlisted legend, but the story goes that most of the Battalion wound up at the Mall, and things were emphatically not looking good for the gang members, who evinced some surprise at encountering both black and Hispanic “skinheads” who were all out looking for whoever had had the temerity to abuse their junior enlisted. The so-called “Spec-four Mafia” in the Ranger Regiment regards that as their sole prerogative and privilege, soooo… Yeah. Supposedly, just about every member of 2/75 below the grade of Staff Sergeant wound up somewhere in the vicinity of the Mall, looking for trouble.

    I have it to understand that there was a collective wetting of pants by the responsible police agencies, and that the poor bastard who was on duty as the guy supporting the Officer of the Day wound up with a whopper of a Staff Duty Log to turn in and brief the next day–Something like thirty pages, according to legend.

  11. I used to live in the Cleveland area. One of the world’s biggest malls in 1976 was the new Randall Park mall in Ohio. Like many people, we shopped there when we traveled to Cleveland to visit family.

    When we moved back to Cleveland in 1978, I notice the differences already apparent. Large groups of “urban youth” would travel 4-5 abreast, and push other shoppers (usually women and the elderly) out of the way. They were loud, crude, and obnoxious. Clerks, seeing them come into a store, would hover, trying to stem the loss of merchandise that often followed their entry.

    It doesn’t take long for people to come up with their own evaluation of how well the mall handled safety, so the mall quickly lost business. They brought in more stores that would appeal to the new shoppers, which left the previous shoppers less inclined to go there.

    By 1985, the mall was on its last legs. It survived for a while, but it was a dinosaur.

  12. I always enjoyed malls. I grew up in the heyday of malls, and we had a few nice ones to choose from. Mostly they were nice because you could go and window shop – it was like an old downtown, but with a/c (Texas summers, hooboy) (and, of course, heating in the winter in less hospitable places). You could walk a bit, grab a bite when you got hungry, browse, watch the girls. Of course, back then they had bookstores, game stores (not just video games, but all sorts of games), and hobby stores in them, along with a few anchor department stores and other clothing retail.

    I can’t blame box stores and online retail for the decline – at least not entirely. Rents went up; maybe taxes, too. But, we’re in an era of change, and the idea of a nice, tidy, indoor “downtown” isn’t currently sustainable. Too bad.

  13. David Foster Says:
    Now decentralization is not a necessity but a choice.

    I saw a title somewhere recently about efficiency being inefficient. And it’s something I’ve harped on for years: the most “efficient” way to do something is not always the best way to do it. The cheapest isn’t always the most profitable. Part of the blessing of the overreaction to Winnie The Flu is that some people are seeing that: just-in-time inventory is OK when everything works, China is a decent source for cheap goods when ‘cheap’ is fine, etc. Sometimes it pays to spend a little more as insurance against bad times, or to ensure you can flex in a crisis.

    (It’s why the cultural difference between the services: Air Force folks are always amazed by all the PT and lawn maintenance Army troops are doing in a day. But they have to – otherwise you get a bunch of bored people just wandering about. And you NEED that mass of grunts to actually pile in when the crisis hits – you don’t charge a machine gun nest with 2 guys. Navy has make-work, too – you need a lot of sailors when the SHTF, but not quite as many when sailing across a placid sea or docked at home port. Inefficiency is a good thing in those cases.) (And, yes, I’m speaking very broadly of the services, here.)

  14. When we moved back to Cleveland in 1978, I notice the differences already apparent. Large groups of “urban youth” would travel 4-5 abreast, and push other shoppers (usually women and the elderly) out of the way. They were loud, crude, and obnoxious.

    This is what happened to the Evergreen Mall near my sister’s home in Chicago. Now, of course, it is spreading to the nicer shopping areas that are not enclosed. North Michigan Avenue is a scene of aggressive gangs of POCs that attack pedestrians and shoplift.

  15. Cool article. And so descriptive! I had no idea you now live in my home city. I could easily identify three of the four malls mentioned, having grown up in and around them from the time they were built. These malls, in turn, killed the open air malls that preceded them here. Which had weakened and then killed the downtown department stores when the enclosed malls gained market share.

    It was sad watching the Rackspace mall decline. It opened while I was away at college but I loved going clothes shopping there on Thursday nights after returning. It was open late Thursdays after work, had a good selection of stores and lots of young people, especially attractive women my age. I wasn’t really a clothes horse. It was just that laundering couldn’t get the smell of jet fuel or 7808 oil stains out (I worked at an AFB test facility across town). And I liked women. But the area demographics were changing drastically. The mostly military families and middle class I grew up with were gone, with the exception of the incorporated area, and replaced by increased gang activity. Mall traffic reflected it. The two murders at the mall’s bus stop in the early nineties finally killed it.

    I’m not sure which dead mall walking you referred to, but I’m guessing it’s the one with the bra-like structures on the roof. If that’s it, it’s been dead since it opened in the late eighties. Didn’t have the population density in the area to support it even with the big anchor stores and now that it does, it’s been OBE. I can’t drive by it without thinking of a young Dolly Parton, which was my first impression of it over thirty years ago. Yeah, I’m old but still immature. I’m sorry/not sorry if you now think of her whenever you pass by.

    There is another dead mall walking that I still go to. No idea how it survives. In the sixties, that mall rivaled the upscale mall you mentioned even though only a few miles away. I go there for the artsy movies that don’t show anywhere else. And I like it because there are no 30.06 signs. Same for the other theater you mentioned.

    Belated bienvenido to you and yours.

  16. Your guess as to the dead mall walking is correct, Red T. As soon as the Sears closes, I think Rolling Oaks will have no further reason to live.
    And the other dead mall walking – yes, I used to go to the artsy movies showing there, but the place always smelled of pee. Apparently it was riddled with mold. The last time I did an event there, I had the ‘con crud’ for about a week afterwards.

  17. During my third assignment, I went to a mall over in Kansas. Walked into a store, looked around, turned to leave and then I saw a drawing I had to have: a mole, sleeping at the bottom of its hole, with a sign saying “Mole Hole” with an arrow pointing down. I was then a missileer, and already had spent five years sleeping underground.

  18. Couple of points:

    The lesson to take from all that surrounds the malls and their fall from profitability and prevalence is that you have to provide what people want, and if you fail to grasp what that really is, as opposed to continuing on from your initial premise in a state of obliviocy, to coin a term… Well, you’re not going to do well.

    Malls provided air-conditioned secure shopping environments for people who felt unsafe in the old-school urban shopping areas. I think we can agree on that, no?

    As an aside, I’ve always wondered if one of the side-effects of the 1960s-onwards destruction of the public commons in most major downtown areas wasn’t the rise of the mall-shopping venue itself. Further speculation might lead one to wonder if some of the developers hadn’t done a GM-and-the-streetcar thing with their resources, financing some of the efforts which created that destruction of the commons, namely with the legal system and all the rest. If you make the downtown retail areas unsafe and unpleasant, you’ve got a natural force driving customers to your nice new “safe zone” shopping malls…

    Which you then manage to destroy by allowing the self-same elements to drive out of popularity, because you thought you were providing “shopping experiences”, when you were actually in the business of “safe shopping”.

    Lotta people have gone bankrupt because they fundamentally misunderstood what they were really in the business of providing. It’s not the widget, necessarily. Much of the time, it’s something entirely different–You focus too much on the product, and not enough on what that product does for the customer. Which is how you find that your market for horse-drawn carriages is now mostly gone, because you weren’t selling carriages, you were really selling personal transportation. Cars came in, and unless you were Studebaker, you were pretty much hosed because you kept right on building carriages…

    So, first point: Malls are dying because they mistook their real product: Safety, as opposed to “shopping”. People went to malls because they didn’t like going downtown with all the rampant BS. Downtowns are staying dead due to vagrants harassing shoppers and human feces in the streets. The malls have failed to recognize that this is a major dissuader when it comes to getting people to come back. You run into one band of “urban youth” doing their thing, and you’re never going back, plus you’re going to tell all your friends not to go, and you’re probably going to forbid family members from going at all.

    Second thing that comes to mind with all of this is the failure of “big”. Big has its advantages, but… I’m here to tell you, centralization in retailing is a horrible idea.

    Case in point: The local lumberyard, which I’ve patronized since at least 1979, was a family-run business. Kinda successful, grew into a bit of a regional force, but the last member of the family said “I’m getting old, I wanna retire…”, and he sold the place to another somewhat larger lumberyard from Central Oregon. This was a couple of years ago, and the Borg have definitely taken over–Time was, I could walk in and mostly find what I needed. Now? LOL… There’s a central buyer, and she apparently sh*tcanned the entire knowledge base they used to have for what to stock–And, to add insult to injury, the store manager can’t do a damn thing about it. He can’t order to what he wants to stock–It’s all lockstep.

    Last three times I went into the store to buy something I used to be able to get, like a new irrigation filter wrench, they didn’t have it. Three times I went in and looked around, asked questions, and then left to order what I needed online or drove 22 miles into the next bigger town to get what I needed.

    This ain’t how you succeed. The “Big Box” guys are even worse, although they have a much larger selection of things to be worse with. Walmart can’t keep the local store stocked with athlete’s foot spray to save their lives, so instead of going to the store, I’m buying it online in bulk and saving even more money.

    Everybody talks trash about “powering down” and providing initiative to subordinates, but nobody actually does it. Anywhere. The urge to centralize and control everything from some backoffice in Citystan, USA is apparently endemic to modern society. It’s killed a lot of publishing, and the same mentality is going to kill the idiots in big box retail. They used economies of scale to wipe out the little guys, but the even bigger online fish coming up behind them is going to eat their lunches because of the simple fact that people like Amazon don’t need to do marketing, in the sense that people like Circuit City or Fry’s used to do. All Amazon has to do is the backend supply chain stuff, and the product either moves or it doesn’t–No need to build the stores to display it, no need to pay people to talk to customers about it (sales-wise…), and the product literally “sells itself”. And, on top of that, everything is available. Everything. There’s no BS about Cleveland setting the planogram for the store in Omak, and then telling the Omak manager that he doesn’t know what the customers want, when they’ve been coming in to complain about what isn’t in the store on a daily basis.

    I think that big box retailing is doomed. One size does not fit all, and if you’re not providing a means for localization, effective localization that is actually responsive, you’re going to lose your ass to things like Amazon. It won’t happen for a few more years, but Walmart as a local retailer is doomed unless they figure out how to actually stock the stores. I don’t know how many times I’ve walked into a local big box kinda operation, lately, looked around for what I needed, didn’t find it, and then walked right out again. It’s a mess, thanks to all the crippling “higher management”.

    You also have the problem where the big box employees are seriously unhappy about the situation–They get railed on for not making sales numbers, but they’ve also got no damn control over what is in the stores. So, the customers give them hell, the managers give them hell, and they’re caught in the middle.

    Big is good in some aspects, but the problem is when you go to try to combine “big” with “We’ll run things from Cleveland…”. Some happy medium has to be met, or they’re going to wake up and find out that the actual business they were in wasn’t retail sales, exactly, but in having the exact product the customer needed right then.

    Don’t even start me on the idiocy we have in the mid-level business markets, where I’m both a retail customer and a flippin’ business. You want a product that’s mid-range in terms of popularity, it’s a bloody nightmare sometimes trying to find someone willing to sell it to you. There’s a line of screws we really like that has a regional distributor who won’t (or, can’t…) sell directly to us, but we keep finding out that the last set of guys we bought those screws through no longer wants to either stock or do a drop-ship for us. It’s nuts, in a lot of respects.

    Then, there’s void in services. Want a nail gun repaired? Nobody local does it, any more–It’s a hundred-mile drive to take them over to a company that apparently hires the dregs to do the work on them, and it’s reaching the point where it’s almost more economical to throw the old ones out and buy a new one, rather than repair. Yet, nobody wants to service the local market… Lowes and Home Depot drove the old suppliers out of business, but all they really want to service is the homeowner, not the professional builder.

    And, the local market is too small to keep someone like Whitecap profitable enough to justify opening up a storefront, so we’re in a mid-level marketing black hole.

    Maddening–I really think there ought to be some way of policing the commons, such that if you’re going to come in like Walmart or Home Depot, you have to guarantee you’re taking up the slack for everything you’re driving out. Tool repair used to be a sideline for the local suppliers that the big box boys drove out of business, but the whole tool repair for contractors end of the business is something they want nothing to do with, so… Yeah. Here we are–Three hundred dollar disposable nail guns that you can’t really get repaired locally.

    I think we’re in a bit of an inflection point, with all of this. When it shakes out, and what it’s going to look like when it’s over with? No idea, but I can tell you right now that there’s an awful lot of “not working right” out there in retail and the mid-level jobber realm that services businesses. Lots of ignored opportunities, and a lot of arrogance that’s actually losing business.

  19. Lotta people have gone bankrupt because they fundamentally misunderstood what they were really in the business of providing. It’s not the widget, necessarily. Much of the time, it’s something entirely different–You focus too much on the product, and not enough on what that product does for the customer.

    That was the first question Peter Drucker asked a new client. “What business are you in?”

    I tried to interest him in spending a day at our medical association in the 1980s. We could not afford him. His fee was $10,000 for one day or one hour.

    I’ve read everything he wrote.

  20. Kirk Says:
    People went to malls because they didn’t like going downtown with all the rampant BS.

    One thing that you didn’t mention that is part of that BS, is parking. Downtown parking in a lot of places is expensive or hard to find. Which means it’s even harder to park and walk through downtown casually shopping and such. Malls built that concept in – either with garages or large lots.

  21. Kirk Says:
    The urge to centralize and control everything from some backoffice in Citystan, USA is apparently endemic to modern society.

    It’s even running rampant in the military, despite almost all of the great strategic and tactical minds saying otherwise.

  22. Excessive centralization: There is a vicious circle involved here. Establish too much top-down control, and you’ll not be able to attract the best sort of employees. This will lead you to establish still more standardization and top-down control, which will lead to…

    Zeynep Ton’s book ‘The Good Jobs Strategy’ is highly relevant to this discussion. I reviewed it here”

  23. @GWB,

    Tell me about it. The problem only got worse with the advent of computers. Time was, you had to actually leave your office to find out what was going on out in the subordinate units. Now? Send an email; someone is sure to lie to you about things when they reply. This is why most higher commanders have no more idea of what is really going on around them than any other delusional asylum inmate.

    There’s this… Thing, I suppose, which I have developed as a possible explanation. We speak of high-trust and low-trust societies in economics, where you get people doing handshake deals in high-trust societies, which also use personal checks as payment.

    That’s an aspect of things. There are others, however, that are at least congruent. High-trust vs. low-trust can exist side-by-side in the same society. Consider the US, for example–It can be very high-trust, in that we’ll accept personal checks from each other, but very low-trust in that we won’t allow low- or mid-level leaders/managers to make their own decisions, centralizing authority to do anything, anything at all. Hell, in some of our social structures, you can’t do a damn thing without permission from “higher”. It’s particularly bad in the military, in most aspects. There’s hardly any real innovation or initiative demonstrated; it’s all top-down driven, and the only bottom-up refinement that’s taking place is a lot of verbal fellatio going both ways.

    I think this is what led to Rome falling: The power structure centralized itself, and did not allow anyone down at the rubber/road interface to make any decisions or provide any real input that was acted upon. Truth lay in Rome, not the periphery. Eventually, the whole thing blew up, and the barbarians came in. Turned out, truth did not lie in Rome, but delusion and denial certainly did.

    I think there’s a lesson here, a truism: You can’t control things from the center. You may think you are, but the fact is, it won’t work. It cannot–There are way too many variables, too many things you need to know in order to be locally successful, things you cannot learn in Cleveland when you’re trying to figure out what to stock in a store in Omak.

    Big does not work for humans. You have to be able to actually “power down”, and make it work, which the vast majority of our managers seem unable to do. They treat power and decision-making authority as though they were some sort of prize, when the reality is that by gathering all of those two things up and putting them under their control at the center of things, they’re drastically reducing effectiveness and introducing massive fragility into the system. You can’t run the hardware store in Omak from Cleveland, much though you may want to.

    It’s also rather interesting to observe how it is that we have devalued the tribal knowledge that the store owner/manager in Omak used to represent; long years of satisfying the customer’s needs taught those guys a lot, but the current “big” system denigrates and devalues that knowledge as though it were useless, when the contrary is true. If your store in Omak doesn’t have the goods on hand, then the customer is likely to say “Screw this… Amazon it is.”.

    Talking retail, it’s really ‘effing bizarre to me that the big box boys have missed out on the fact that the sclerotic response speed to customer needs is what will kill them in the end. Amazon is two days away; if I special-order through the local Home Depot, you’re usually talking weeks before it shows up. Online orders are somewhat different, but you’re paying for shipping there. Is this a good long-term business model? Slower through the stores than from the online guys, one of whom you own, but the other of which is vertically integrated and has their own shipping…?

    Yeah. The dinosaurs are dead–Asteroid hit, but they haven’t gotten the word, as of yet. Dead paradigm walking, I think…

    More power/control you try to take, the less you’ll actually have. And, the inimical effects of your power grab mean that you’ll never have really capable subordinates to take over, because they’re too used to having your “expertise” to run things. This is the fundamental lesson for why socialism does not (and never will) work.

  24. Downtown parking in a lot of places is expensive or hard to find. Which means it’s even harder to park and walk through downtown casually shopping and such.

    This was also true of local shopping when I was a kid. I remember when supermarkets did not have parking lots. They were smaller than those today but still sizable. A&P and National were two in Chicago in the 40s. Typically, they delivered and my mother did not drive. She would shop and the store had a group of teens that delivered for a small fee. The initial incident in the movie “Death Wish” was a group of teens delivering food and then a home invasion.

    The first markets with parking lots that I recall were a chain called “High-Low” for High Quality and Low Prices. One summer I worked as a helper on a Coca Cola truck and we delivered thousands of cases of Coke in the hot sun. There was a big High-Low market at 95th and Western with a big parking lot. That was one of the first I saw like that.

  25. It’s even running rampant in the military, despite almost all of the great strategic and tactical minds saying otherwise.

    Vietnam was the first war with instant communications. That worked out well.

    Afghanistan is another example and I read Dakota Meyers’ book about it.

    His civil affairs group was ambushed and it took hours to get permission for artillery support. Nobody at the fire base could give permission.

  26. Every now and then on the Daily Mail there is a lament about the declination of the good old British town “High Street” – how so many small retailers have given it up, and now most of the quaint old store fronts are charity shops, or closed up entirely. Usually, the commenters to the story point out that the local council charges a bomb for parking – on the High Street, adjacent streets, or in some bespoke council-owned parking garage.
    Gee, make it difficult and/or expensive for shoppers to come downtown, and voila! Shoppers don’t come downtown! They go to the outlaying and easily-accessed supermarket/shopping center with an acre or so of free parking, since they have neither money or time to waste.

  27. @Sgt. Mom,

    It is a rare local government that really understands the full set of effects for their actions, or which recognizes the hypocrisy of them.

    The world is full of this. I’ve often commented that one of the major problems with the military, which extends a lot further into civilian and business life than I really find comfortable, is that the people who are running things and who we’ve selected for high-level leadership…? Well, they’re generally not stupid people, but they also have not a f**king clue about how their organizations really work. And, worse yet, no understanding at all of how to get things done in the systems they create and manipulate.

    Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Allow me to elaborate:

    Any organization is experienced by its participants as a series of behavioral shaping events straight out of B.F. Skinner. That’s my central thesis, and the fact is that the vast majority of our organizations do things that indicate the people running them fail to comprehend this fundamental fact, or its implications.

    Consider a minor event in the military recruitment process, one we all laugh at in retrospect, but which is really an indicator that our managers/leaders fail to comprehend their own actions and policies. Rack your brains, now… What could it be? Something that is diametrically opposed to the stated goals of the organization, and yet which we set the stage to indicate that we really want the opposite behavior from our stated goals, and will hypocritically reward those who figure out what we’re really signalling we want from them. This sets the stage for every single future interaction between the “system” and our recruits, but nobody ever thinks about it, or its effect.

    What is it, you ask? Simple enough–It’s that question about drug use we ask everyone. If a potential recruit answers honestly that they have used drugs, the recruiter has been conditioned by his bosses to do what he does, and he stamps his foot on the floor, while asking “Are you sure you want to answer that question like that…?”. Soon enough, what that recruiter has done is demonstrate a couple of things: One, that the stated standard of “no drug use” is meaningless, two, that it’s OK to lie to the institution, and thirdly, that such prevarication will not only be tolerated but rewarded. Even if a young man tells the truth, having kept to the supposed standard of no drug use, what happens? The recruiter will behave as though he told a lie, and then go on to implement the same conditioning event that teaches the recruit to lie to him and the institution.

    Think someone set out to do that? Think anyone thought through the whole thing, and recognized the fundamental hypocrisy, or what its long-term effects would be? No, no, no, and oh hell no.

    I think of this set of issues as “message/signal/noise”. Most of our leaders, both military and civilian have this worldview where they think that they have control of it all via diktat–What they say, what they direct, is the only thing that matters. They have the control, you see, ‘cos they’re in charge.

    What they say is “message”. Signal, on the other hand, is what the environment is actually telling the subject who is experiencing it as a Skinner box. When message and signal are in alignment and agree with each other, good things happen. When you don’t have alignment, your victims are going to pay attention to the actual signal you’re generating in the environment, and the message becomes noise that said subject then ignores, which leads to a feedback loop as the manager/leader flails away at what he imagines are his “levers of power”.

    Consider a situation: Manager/leader looks out and notes that his pretty-pretty lawn around the headquarters building for the organization is defaced by a bunch of trails leading from the building out to other facilities. Never bothering to analyze why those footpaths are there, he then thunders from on high about new rules to ban walking on the grass, and commands that the poor bastards keeping the grounds reseed the lawn. Which is then followed by a generalized fit of rage, draconian orders, and a lot of obsession about why people won’t do as he says.

    The reality often is that there are other signals being sent–Access and time allotted out in the hinterlands of the organization both mandate that the headquarters building be gotten to in a speedy manner, or the proletariat subjects of all this can’t do their jobs. So, choosing between “piss off immediate boss” and “piss off remote a-hole we hardly ever see…”, they make a rational choice and are conditioned into a behavior pattern that the guy with the lawn issues never looked for or recognized.

    Right answer in all of this? Put in some f**king sidewalks. Instead, most of our managers/leaders are going to get caught up in a feedback loop and focus on that grass and the trails through it, wasting their petty authority within the organization on something that they could have fixed by analyzing and changing the environmental shaping of things.

    This sort of problem is rife throughout our civilization. It’s everywhere, when you look for it–Carts not going back into the cart corral down at the supermarket? Look to the behavioral shaping of it all. I think only Aldi has the problem under control, with its little deposit scheme. That quarter in the cart handle deal can in no way pay for lost carts, but it is a behavioral shaper for most people that enables Aldi to vastly reduce the cost of their employees going out to chase carts down.

    Think about it, look around yourself, and then refute what I’m saying here: Most of our leadership cadre, both military and civilian, have absolutely no f**king idea of how things really work in their organizations or the world around them. That’s demonstrated on the daily, with almost everything they do. It’s not just them, it’s the way we select and train them, looking for certain behaviorally autistic savants, and then putting them in charge of things. Vast majority of these people really ought to be institutionalized in some clinical setting somewhere, their behavior and thought processes being that maladaptive.

  28. Kirk

    Case in point: The local lumberyard, which I’ve patronized since at least 1979, was a family-run business. Kinda successful, grew into a bit of a regional force, but the last member of the family said “I’m getting old, I wanna retire…”, and he sold the place to another somewhat larger lumberyard from Central Oregon. This was a couple of years ago, and the Borg have definitely taken over–Time was, I could walk in and mostly find what I needed. Now? LOL… There’s a central buyer, and she apparently sh*tcanned the entire knowledge base they used to have for what to stock–And, to add insult to injury, the store manager can’t do a damn thing about it. He can’t order to what he wants to stock–It’s all lockstep.

    That reminds me of a local hardware store. The founder’s family sold it locally, not to a chain. Its stock of basic hardware widgets compares well with – in some instances even better than- Lowes or Home Depot. Its prices are fairly competitive. IIRC, it gets its main material from Ace Hardware.Its customer service is excellent. Within a minute or two of perusing the aisles, a store rep will ask if he can be of assistance. As most of the hassle of going to a hardware store is locating what you are looking for, this assistance is quite welcome.

    If you want a refrigerator, this is not the store to go to, but for hardware, it is fine.

  29. Gringo,

    I get great customer service from them, just like before. The problem is that the “tribal knowledge” which heretofore existed in terms of the things they would stock has evaporated. There’s not a hell of a lot of call for filter wrenches where the new guys are from, so that item got kicked off the SKU list.

    I think that what happened was that they came in, looked around and said “This isn’t how we do things…”, and then deprecated the entire body of knowledge built up over sixty years for what the local market needed and was used to buying. We’re now on a “Central Oregon” database, so to speak, and that simply does not match local conditions in a lot of cases.

    It is, I think, a result of not knowing what you’re actually doing, down at the root of it all, and then not listening to feedback indicating you should make changes. I’ve asked about those three items getting stocked, and the old employees just shake their heads and say that they get ignored when they ask for something to go back on the SKU list. There’s no local input, no local control, no point to the manager doing anything other than what’s in lockstep from “on high”. Kinda sad to see, but it’s basically the same problem we have with Lowes and Home Depot, just on a smaller and more local scale.

    Lots of people who buy a business fail to comprehend that much of what they’re buying in a case like this are intangible things, like the local buying habits, built up out of years and years of experience. Also, that if you want your new business to be able to “learn” the market, you need to have mechanisms in place to allow for that. These people have ignored the first, and not bothered about the second. From what I understand, the woman in charge of all this is a micro-managing control freak who thinks she knows everything because of her background and experience. She will not take input from anyone below her in the organization, and I suspect we’ll be seeing a case-study in business failure before they get another sixty years under their belts.

  30. That quarter in the cart handle deal can in no way pay for lost carts, but it is a behavioral shaper for most people that enables Aldi to vastly reduce the cost of their employees going out to chase carts down.

    Interesting sidelight to that. My wife loves the “99 cents store” in Tucson. I hate it so, until the virus, she usually went alone. There are two stores I know of in Tucson. One is on Oracle and is close to a low economic zone with lots of apartments. It had, until the virus, a 25 cent deposit slot to get a basket.

    The other is on the west side in an area of mostly single family homes. It is in a new shopping center. I’ve only been there twice but it is much larger than the other and I see no sign of a coin receiver.

    In certain neighborhoods in Chicago, there are posts embedded in the exit from the store that prevent carts from being taken to the parking lot or beyond. The shopper must drive the car up to the exit area to load groceries. Extreme behavior modification.

  31. @Mike K,

    I’ve long observed that you can tell a lot about a community by observing the “cart behavior” in the stores. Anywhere you find carts strewn across the parking lot without being put back after use, you don’t want to be there after dark unless you’re armed and your head is on a swivel. You sure as hell don’t sleep in your RV there, per one of my RV-living friends who uses the same technique.

  32. And another clue, in observing the cars parked in various neighborhoods, when house-hunting here and there. Well-maintained cars of latish but not up to the current year vintage? Affordable, and working to middle-class. Probably OK. The clue is “well-maintained” but not absolutely new. Nothing but dented and primer-patched junkers on the street? Stay away. Well away. The neighborhood may be marginally OK, but … yeah. Barely above poverty-level. Late model-and totally blinged out models, in an otherwise sketchy neighborhood – stay even farther away. The next county would be advisable.
    No cars visible at all, ’cause they’re all parked away — and if they are late-model, high-end? Eh – probably can’t afford that neighborhood anyway.

  33. A friend of mine called HP the Escher mall because you couldn’t figure out how to get from where you were to the store that you could see across the canyon.

    Fashion Valley is still the high end mall, but the newly renovated UTC mall is giving it a run for its money. Hermès moved to UTC a few years ago, not sure if it was related to this:

    The downfall of H P began when the city let the downtown homeless problem get out of control. It made downtown and HP in particular less of a destination because they weren’t allowed to keep them out, which drove shoppers away.

  34. Fascinating thread. Read every word.

    My experience (b. 1962) with malls: Northridge in Milwaukee was the place to go in northern Milwaukee County in the 70s. I saw “Jaws” there. Post-divorce, my dad has his bachelor pad in the development across from the mall. (And into which I moved after mom kicked me out …) When I moved back to Milwaukee in the early 90s, it had changed. For reasons others have stated. And the development had become lower income housing. No idea if it is still open.

    Regarding efficiency, words I live by: The inefficient way you know is more efficient than the efficient way you don’t know. ;-)

  35. But if the malls fail, where are the “urban youfs” going to practice their fourth world culture???

  36. That Hermes raid looked like similar thefts I’ve seen video of in Chicago on north Michigan Avenue. I used to always go up there on visits but no more. Chicago is getting to be a war zone anymore. Of course, the mass shoplifting is done by the same ethnic group that drives decent grocery stores out of low income neighborhoods.

    Of course those feral teens will never be arrested. On one occasion a couple of years ago, I saw video of a group of white women, no doubt from high end suburbs, who formed a circle around a group of feral teens to “protect” them from the evil police who might have arrested the little angels who had robbed the shop.

    I can even guess the political sympathies of those women. Not a Trump voter among them.

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