Guest Column | October 1, 2018

The Politically Incorrect Reason To Explain The Death Of Enclosed Malls: It's The People

By Mark S. Rosenbaum, Chair and Professor, Department of Retailing, University of South Carolina; Germán Contreras Ramirez, Director, Center for Marketing, Externado University; and Dahlia El-Manstrly, Lecturer in Marketing & Co-Director, Centre for Service Excellence

The enclosed mall is dead. Perhaps, this statement is a bit abrupt; however, its veracity is no longer in question. Indeed, one simply must visit to reminisce about shopping centers and the role that they played in so many people’s lives and daily experiences. The decline of the moribund enclosed mall is not impacting U.S. retail sales, as the U.S. Census reported retail sales for the 2018 second quarter (not-adjusted) increased 5.3 percent, along with an impressive double-digit increase in e-commerce sales of 15.4 percent. Retail is thriving, despite the closures and abandonment of enclosed malls.

Retail pundits have attributed the decline of enclosed malls to the rise of e-commerce. Clearly, the impact of e-commerce, namely, the rise of internet retailing powerhouses and the use of e-commerce by brick-and-mortar retailers, have facilitated the demise of the enclosed mall; however, about 90 percent of retailing purchases in the United States are conducted in offline establishments. Other pundits have attributed the decay of enclosed malls to ‘shopper boredom.’  Finally, open-air, lifestyle centers are thriving globally; thus, shoppers do not seem to be bored in all retail settings. Like archeologists who offer insights into the demise of dinosaurs, retail pundits seem to attribute many causes to the loss of enclosed centers without really homing in on any single cause. Yet, there is a possible cause of the decline of enclosed malls thaPexels architecture-building-buildings-264706t seems to be overlooked and even, politically incorrect despite harbingers that all point in one direction; that is, a concern for personal security.

On December 27, 2016, a brawl broke out in Fox Valley Mall, which is in Aurora, Illinois and approximately 1,000 shoppers were evacuated from the mall. The news broadcast of the event was terrifying to watch. This incident is not an isolated one. Many people, around the globe, are regularly informed about security issues in enclosed malls on news channels, internet sites, and social media feeds. All too often, we watch chilling scenes of shoppers, as well as others in enclosed settings, such as airline passengers or students, being at risk due to their being in an enclosed setting with other people. The fear of being entrapped with others is taking a toll, and we believe, that a concern for security due to social incivility is causing shoppers, around the world, to refrain from spending time in enclosed malls.

To empirically test our hypothesis, that a concern personal security due to the presence of others in an enclosed mall is encouraging shopper avoidance, we measured the neural activity of 450 shoppers using the EMOTIV Epoc+ 14 Channel Mobile EEG device. In addition, we used the EEG devices with Emotiv Xavier software which provides participant brain activity on six key cognitive metrics; these are, engagement, excitement, focus, interest, relaxation and stress. A definition of these metrics is highlighted below:

EMOTIV Get To Know Your Brain


In this experiment, we had groups of 150 mall shoppers watch three seven-to-nine-minute videos of a typical mall journey (e.g., parking lot, walk around stores, food court, restroom, and so forth). One video featured the journey without any shoppers present (stores only. The second video featured a ‘few shoppers’ and the third video featured many shoppers. The following illustration highlights clips from the three videos.

Video Screen Grabs

The participants brain wave pattern revealed fascinating results:

The participants brain wave pattern revealed fascinating results

The addition of mall shoppers, within the context of an enclosed mall, resulted in brain activity patterns that encourage avoidance. That is, participants, who viewed a mall experience with many shoppers, showed neural activity associated with lower levels of excitement and of being less able to focus compared to other participants. Although participants, who viewed a mall experience with many shoppers, reported more interest and engagement than other participants, they also Pexels Frustrated Womenreported more stress. In other words, participants who viewed many shoppers are interested in shopping, they are immersed in the experience, but, they are less comfortable in this situation compared to other participants.

The bottom line, as shoppers viewed a typical shopping experience with many people, their stress levels increased, their excitement dropped, and their ability to focus decreased. Although it may be politically incorrect, the reality seems to be that the presence of other shoppers in an enclosed setting is resulting in cognitive responses that encourage place avoidance. Yes, the demise of the enclosed mall is due to many factors. However, the rise of e-commerce is not the only factor causing the death of the mall; it’s also due to a lack of social civility among people, perhaps, a fear of entrapment in an enclosed space.