Malls Are Dead. Long Live Online Shopping

At Christmas 2016, the twenty-year battle is over. One side won, one side lost. I mean the twenty-year war between bricks-and-mortar stores and online venders.

JC Penney, 1996

This one-sided thrashing has been worse than that suffered by those perennial losers, the Washington Generals. (Note: I’m referring to basketball team that lost more than 16,000 games to the Harlem Globetrotters, not casting aspersions on all of those Trump cabinet nominees.)

I remember the exact moment I realized this war between online stores and bricks-and-mortar stores was on like Donkey Kong.

In December 1996, a pioneering technology journalist from The Economist announced that he had attempted to purchase all of his Christmas gifts online.

Whoa! That seemed crazy and cool. Reading that article in my little cramped studio apartment in Manhattan, I was fascinated by the idea that with a few clicks, Christmas shopping could come to me. No paper catalogues, no phone calls, just clicks. I hate shopping, and this experiment in 1996 seemed awesome, and very science fiction-y.

Of course, the joke is that the journalist at The Economist couldn’t do it. He was able to buy one Christmas gift only. Although many big companies had built websites by 1996, they were essentially non-interactive company brochures, with undeveloped and insecure methods of payment.

Much changed in 20 years. A consumer survey by a subsidiary of accounting firm Deloitte found that shoppers will spend equal amounts online as in-store in the 2016 holiday season, a new milestone for web sales.

That continues the upward trend begun two decades ago. And nobody thinks 50 percent will be the stopping point. The next retail frontier is how much shopping will be done on mobile devices, which the same Deloitte survey already pegs at 10 percent of all holiday sales in 2016, and growing.

I wish there was a way to efficiently invest in the idea that retail stores in malls will continue to get crushed by online stores. I mean, I’m sure there’s some ETF for this, but you shouldn’t take investment advice from a blogger, so I’m not going to look it up for you.

Just as I remember the launch of the 20 year war during Christmas 1996, I also remember the exact moment I decided brick-and-mortar stores were officially dead to me. In fact, it happened this past Summer.

The Sears Catalog, 1996

I needed to shop in a real-live physical store for a couple of solid reasons. First, I had procrastinated buying a 15-year wedding anniversary gift until the actual day. My same-day need left no time even for a Fedex delivery.

Second, I figured that my intended gift – a pair of crystal champagne flutes – should be bought in person to avoid breakage.

For this exceptional anniversary gift, I drove to a fancy store in a fancy mall. I allotted a full hour ahead of a noontime appointment. Let’s call the store Festeration Hardware as I wouldn’t want to embarrass any retailer in particular.

In advance of my visit to Festeration, I looked up crystal stemware on my phone to make sure they carried some. [Incidentally, I’ve learned this is called “webrooming,” in which the customer checks online before showing up to the showroom.] And, yes, they carry crystal champagne glasses at Festeration. Perfect.

Just inside, a man with a headset in the role of maitre d’, greeted me and asked me to wait a moment by the door to be served by Janet. Super.

A full ten minutes later, and about three minutes after I started waving my hands plaintively at the maître d., Janet appeared. Would I like some bottled water?

Crystal champagne flutes. I must have them.

Nope. I’m just here to pick out some crystal champagne glasses for a 15-year anniversary gift.

Ok, well. I’m not sure what we have in inventory here at Festeration, let me look. She disappears. Ten more minutes pass. I’m clearly not invited to walk around the store.

Janet: Yeah, you see, Festeration here is more of a showroom-experience type concept store. Most of our inventory is ordered online.

Me: OK. Do you have anything? Today is my wedding anniversary. And “crystal” is the 15-year anniversary thing you’re supposed to get.

Janet pointed out one ‘display model’ of four glasses, and then found in a backroom inventory some “smoky” champagne glasses. I nixed the “smoky” style – doesn’t that kind of miss the point of crystal? – and decided to buy the display model.

At checkout I had one more question for Janet.

Me: I need to make sure these are actually crystal, since that’s the point of the gift. Can you tell me if they are crystal?

Janet: I don’t know much about crystal glassware. Here, why don’t you look it up on this screen? She turned the screen towards me.

I squinting at the tiny print and found the the word crystal in the description, no thanks to Janet.

Me: Great, I’ll buy them.

Janet: Would you like this wrapped?

Me: Well, yes. I don’t want them to break in the car-ride home.

Janet then disappeared for another fifteen minutes.

Now I was in crunch mode to not miss my noontime appointment.

She eventually returned from the back with a surplus box she had scrounged somewhere. As I shifted from right foot to left foot back to right foot, now worried about the time, it must have taken her another ten minutes to punch in my credit card information and pack some tissue paper into the cardboard box around the glasses.

My Festeration experience was laughably bad from start to finish.

Anyway, I will go to great lengths to avoid this kind of nonsense in the future. I don’t want to sound overly whiny about my Festeration visit, as it was only an hour lost in a completely #FirstWorldProblems context. It’s just, why would anyone want that kind of terrible shopping experience, when compared to the web?[1]

It took twenty years to change holiday shopping habits. The mall is dead. The web rules. What will the next twenty years bring? For Christmas 2036, I’ll just lay a finger to the side of my nose, wiggle my Snapchat spectacles and order that self-driving all-electric hovercraft I’ve always wanted.



A version of this post appeared in the San Antonio Express News and Houston Chronicle.

[1] I am not a neutral observer in this war between online shopping and in-person shopping, at least when in-person means going to a mall for shopping. I loathe malls. If you share my loathing or schadenfreude, you’ll probably enjoy, a website which has tracked the stories and pictures of declining and closed malls since 2000.



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I founded Bankers Anonymous because, as a recovering banker, I believe that the gap between the financial world as I know it and the public discourse about finance is more than just a problem for a family trying to balance their checkbook, or politicians trying to score points over next year’s budget – it is a weakness of our civil society. For reals. It’s also really fun for me.

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