ENFIELD, CT — It’s a quiet suburban tragedy: the small shopping mall at the heart of my town is slowly dying. The same thing is happening to malls all across the country.
A decade ago, the Enfield Square Mall seemed like it was in pretty good shape. It had a Target, a Sears, a movie theater, a Macy’s, and a Macy’s Home Store. Sure, J.C. Penney’s had left, but the Macy’s had simply expanded to fill that slot, so it was fine. Then the Great Recession hit, and the big retail giants slowly began to sink. The past two years saw a cascade of closings. First, Macy’s pulled their stores out. Longtime tenants like Radio Shack and Ruby Tuesday shuttered. And then, in the coup de grâce, a badly wounded Sears closed stores nationwide, including the one in Enfield, in early 2017.
That left the mall with two remaining anchors: the movie theater and the Target. That was it. Suddenly people in town were hit with the cold realization that this mall wasn’t going to last.
So what happened?
There are lots of explanations. Some of the reasons are wrapped up in the changing landscape of retail nationwide. For instance, people are shopping online much more than they used to, meaning that department stores have been under increasing pressure. Rising wages have squeezed the department stores, which rely on cheap labor, from the other direction. Many department stores like Sears have been teetering on the edge of the abyss for years; it didn’t take much to finally shove them over.
And, most stunningly for those of us who grew up in the mall-crazy 1980s, people just aren’t going to shopping malls as much as they used to. The young shoppers upon whom malls once depended are spending their money at restaurants and online instead. Malls aren’t cool anymore.
This is a bad situation for the already weak and overextended brick-and-mortar retail sector. The United States, it turns out, built way too many malls. We have a lot more shopping space per person than any other country.
It’s the revenge of the once-abandoned city centers, visited at last upon the suburbs that destroyed them. The late 20th century way of driving to a big mall, parking, and then wandering around inside its sterile retail confines is done.
Those are the big trends. But what about smaller, more local problems?
Part of the issue is the massive retail consolidation that happened during the 1990s and 2000s. Department stores used to be local institutions, like G. Fox, Sage Allen, and Steiger’s (a Springfield-based store that had a store in Enfield). But those stores failed or were bought out by larger companies. G. Fox failed and was replaced in many places by Filene’s, which in turn was bought by Macy’s. The Steiger’s was replaced by a J.C. Penney’s when that chain closed.
People had a connection with the old stores like G. Fox. But what connection did any of us have with Macy’s? Why shop at a place that wasn’t familiar and had no history here?
Consolidation also made the whole sector more vulnerable in the end. Sears and Macy’s all had plenty of stores, but when those companies began to fail there was very little left to take their place.
Enfield is also, curiously, a victim of its own success. The area around the mall is full of big box stores like Costco, Best Buy, Barnes & Noble, Kohl’s, and Home Depot. Those stores are popular, but they certainly draw traffic away from the mall.
So what now? If the mall closes, it’s going to be trouble. A big shopping district with a dead mall at its heart isn’t healthy. The mall anchored the whole area, and without it other stores may struggle harder to survive. This is especially true in today’s climate for retail.
The town needs to come up with a plan. There’s a lot of prime real estate where the mall sits; it’s right off the highway, and it’s as close to a real town center as Enfield has now. What should be done with it if there isn’t a mall there?
Maybe a mixed-use development like Blue Back Square might be an option, or maybe it can simply be housing. Enfield doesn’t have enough apartment space, after all. Maybe it could just be more space for stand-alone stores and restaurants, as has happened to many small malls. Or maybe we could just bulldoze the whole thing and turn it into a big park.
Whatever we decide, we’d better do it quick. The future’s coming, fast.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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