If Malls Are Dying, Why Are We Still So Obsessed with Them?

mean girls mall shopping scene
Paramount Pictures

One of the most iconic lines of Mean Girls may not have happened, had the movie been written in the past decade instead of the early aughts. Regina George’s famous utterance, “Get in, loser—we’re going shopping,” might have prompted people to wonder, uh, where? Target? (To quote another cinematic teen shopaholic: As if!)

We’re talking about the shopping mall, the after-school hangout of tweens and teens everywhere, which has not-so-quietly dwindled from 2,500 sprawling clusters of stores nationwide in the ‘80s to less than 700 today. By some estimates, that number may drop to 150 by 2033. Headlines have been ringing the death knell for malls for nearly as long—The Atlantic cites a spate of articles, ranging from The Guardian to CNN, declaring the end of our Orange-Julius-sipping-and-Bath-and-Body-Works-candle-sniffing days since 2014. They cite all the familiar reasons: People are doing more shopping online than in-person, the department stores that once anchored these behemoths are going out of business, developers over-developed.

So, if all that is true, to loosely paraphrase Mariah Carey, why are you so obsessed with [malls]? Why haven’t we let them go gently into that good night over the past nine years?

If anything, we’ve gotten more nostalgic for its neon lights, commercial-grade carpeting and escalators galore. Pinterest searches for images of malls have steadily climbed over the past year, while Google searches for malls have held fairly steady since 2004 (with spikes around Christmas each year). Overall mall foot traffic was up in 2022, too, but that’s not all: A mall was the setting for Stranger Things’s third season, as well as Diesel’s fall/winter 2022 ad campaign. And what even was TikTok’s “Teenage Dirtbag” trend but an homage to the heavy-eyelinered days of the early aughts, where everyone dressed as if they lived somewhere between Hot Topic and Hollister?

cher and christian ride escalator in scene from 'clueless'
CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

Author Karin Lin-Greenberg  has a theory behind the mall’s enduring appeal: “It’s a sensory experience to be in a mall—there’s so much to hear, see, smell, touch and even taste, if you take a detour into the food court,” she says. “There’s a lot to observe, too, from the people working at the mall, to the people shopping there, even to people who are just at the mall to grab a meal or to get in some steps mall-walking.”

Lin-Greenberg has put some serious thought into this; she set her latest novel, You Are Here, in an upstate New York mall on the verge of closure. Part of the draw, she says, was the ability to have “characters who would never encounter each other in their everyday lives bump into and interact in the mall,” adding “sometimes significant relationships can develop and a sense of community can form.”

In essence, the mall is an exceptionally spacious “third place,” a term sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined in 1989 to refer to a space outside of home and work, where you could just hang out. Starbucks grew out of embodying that term, strategically designing its cafés as places for people to gather. But malls offer a bigger footprint to do just that—they’re a place to roam when it’s too cold or rainy (or hot) to wander the park, without the keep-it-down quiet of a library.

In recent years, Target runs have gone from chore to borderline self-care destination: a place to let your mind wander as you wander the aisles. But in big box stores, you’re often tethered to a shopping cart—or navigating around them. You don’t connect with others so much as browse, the walking equivalent of scrolling your social feeds. It’s mind-numbing entertainment; a salve to quiet a chaotic mind.

A mall can offer you that, too, but it can also be a community hub—and in fact, more complexes are pivoting to do just that. Many malls are reimagining their spaces, replacing those empty anchor stores with new ways to draw people in, be it arcades, glow golf, escape rooms or bounce house emporiums. (One Las Vegas developer is even working with a company specializing in urban soccer parks.) Some are mixing in other uses, renovating to add apartments or healthcare centers.

avril lavigne performs at macy's in mall tour circa 2004
Avril Lavigne performs at Macy’s in 2004 as part of her Top Secret Mall Tour. PHOTO: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

“I think it’s notable that malls can and do evolve,” Lin-Greenberg says. “The last time I went to the mall, I encountered a retail space that now housed a rabbit rescue organization, and there were dozens of rabbits inside who could be adopted. I found it both strange and lovely that this rescue organization had found this space in a location where there was a lot of foot traffic and people who probably didn’t come to the mall to adopt a rabbit might leave with a new pet. Seeing those rabbits reminded me that malls have the ability to surprise, and wonderful things can happen there.”

As we come out of a pandemic that left us starved for connection—which only exacerbated the feelings of loneliness that have been steadily growing in America since the ‘70s—the allure of the mall crystalizes. It’s the hangout we need; an excuse to round up our friends and maybe run into our crush. Or, who knows, find a new pet.

To put it plainly: It’s not a phase, Mom! We’re mall rats 4 lyfe.

candace davison bio

VP of editorial, recipe developer, kitsch-lover

Candace Davison oversees PureWow's food and home content, as well as its franchises, like the PureWow100 review series and the Happy Kid Awards. She’s covered all things lifestyle...