OPINION: With malls still alive, mall rats have a chance to thrive

As teens, my generation once roamed mall corridors without adults and, along the way, gained more of a sense of independence
North DeKalb Mall is set for redevelopment as Lulah Hills. Though some malls are closing, others are holding steady, fueled in part by a new generation of Gen Z shoppers seeking an in-store experience and a dose of independence. Image Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

Credit: RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

North DeKalb Mall is set for redevelopment as Lulah Hills. Though some malls are closing, others are holding steady, fueled in part by a new generation of Gen Z shoppers seeking an in-store experience and a dose of independence. Image Credit: Rodney Ho

The term “mall rat” first entered the national lexicon in the early 1980s. It described a young person who spends an inordinate amount of time at the local mall doing more socializing than shopping. By the 1990s, that was also the title of a Kevin Smith movie in which a group of adults did the same thing. Nowadays, the term might have a more literal meaning, given the gazillion square footage of mall retail space sitting empty.

For at least a decade, people have been predicting the death of the American shopping mall.

In Georgia, you don’t have to look hard to find one of those struggling retail centers. The Mall at West End, for example, has been the focus of three failed attempts at revitalization since 2019, with the latest developer backing out in October. At last count, one-fourth of the retail space in the mall was empty.

But, if my personal observations from this past holiday shopping season are any indication, reports on the death of malls — and mall culture — may be premature. Gen Z, it appears, is coming to the rescue — the mall might be a hangout spot again.

One Saturday morning just before Christmas, a popular bath and body store at Atlantic Station was overrun with Gen Z teenagers perusing all manner of scented candles and body sprays. A few days later, when my 13-year-old daughter and I were at Cumberland Mall, there were Gen Z shoppers for as far as the eye could see.

Recent surveys seem to confirm Gen Z’s affinity for the mall. More than any other age group, those between the ages of 12 and 27 said in a JLL Retail Holiday Survey that they preferred going to malls over other retail experiences.

And, apparently, this isn’t limited to the holiday season. Over the summer, 73% of young folks surveyed by the International Council of Shopping said they had visited a mall at least once in the previous month.

Just like the mall rats before them, most of them — two-thirds — indicated they went for the social aspect, not just shopping.

This is something I can understand, because I have a lot of nostalgia for malls.

When I hit my teens, the moment my parents felt I was responsible enough to hop the bus or train downtown, my friends and I would spend hours strolling through Water Tower Place on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. For years, it was the only mall in the city limits, and we could get there without begging for a ride from mom or dad.

Those trips sometimes included shopping at stores like Limited Express, Swatch or Benetton, browsing books at Kroch’s and Bretano’s and eating lunch at McDonald’s. But most of our time was spent walking around, reveling in a sense of freedom. This, of course, is part of what adolescence is all about.

It made me happy on my recent mall excursions to see pairs and trios of teens giggling and window shopping. To be clear, I’m not pushing for more consumerism. But seeing Gen Z shoppers at the mall reminded me of the days when malls were a safe space for kids to explore the world, learn to negotiate with their peers and establish independence.

In recent decades, we have developed a societal expectation that young people must always be under constant adult supervision.

For my generation, the mall was the place where you hung with groups of friends for your first “date,” or purchased inexpensive trinkets for your buddies at Spencer Gifts. It was often the first place you began selecting your own clothing and finding your sense of style.

Even working at the mall was cool. I desperately wanted a job at Limited Express — for the discount, so I could fulfill all of my neon sweater and rubber bangle dreams.

But I know times have changed. And a lot of malls have changed.

Some malls have set curfews that, after a certain hour, ban teens from wandering around without an adult. The scuffles, the shootings, the general sense that the world has become a very dangerous place (even though some statistics show otherwise) have made some of us parents more resistant to letting our kids take off on their own. We hover, though we know we have to give them room to grow up.

Even my beloved Water Tower Place isn’t what it used to be. Its anchor stores are gone, and the glass elevator, once a spectacle of modernity, has lost its shine. In 2019, the mall launched its own parental guidance policy that starts after 4 p.m. on weekends, much to the consternation of some parents.

Like many of those parents, I am always seeking ways to allow my daughter to assert her independence in a safe environment as I did as a teen. My friends and I talk at length about how to give our children opportunities to do this. Sometimes, we let them go to a nearby park to play ball or walk to nearby retail centers without one of us tagging along.

It’s scary but important, and maybe malls will continue to aid that purpose, even as they are being reimagined today.

North DeKalb Mall is being reinvented as a mixed-use development called Lulah Hills. It will feature apartments, retail and the AMC movie theater that’s already there.

In Middle Georgia, with much of the retail space empty, the Macon Mall is being redeveloped into a multipurpose space, with county offices, what’s being billed as the world’s largest pickleball facility and the state’s second largest amphitheater.

I hope these new iterations will continue to be places that offer future generations some adolescent freedom, even if that freedom is somewhat curtailed.

The landscape of American malls is changing, as it must for many of them if they are to survive.

But mall culture isn’t dead just yet, and maybe, just maybe, neither is the mall rat.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.

About the Author