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  • Writer's pictureDavid Connolly

Dystopian American Mall Scenes A Warning For Australian Retail

Updated: May 27, 2021

In the 2008 Disney/Pixar film WALL-E, the Earth has been reduced to a wasteland, covered in nothing but rubbish and mega-malls, forcing humanity to abandon their home planet.

When the film came out, endless social commentators and academics warned that the United States would soon resemble the dystopia pictured in WALL-E if the American public’s consumerist buying habits – and the shopping malls that both encourage and are emblematic of those habits – continue to be built across the country.

Yet on the cusp of 2021, we’re seeing America move in a different direction, but one that’s no less dystopian. Since WALL-E was released, we’ve experienced a global recession, the growth of online retail and most recently a life-altering pandemic. Malls, once a mainstay of suburban America, have struggled to survive, and ‘zombie malls’ are more and more common around the country.

There’s something incredibly bleak about seeing an empty mall, especially one where its tenants have long since departed. Even more bleak is the growing trend of ‘zombie mall auctions’, where liquidators sell off the remaining parts of a shopping mall – everything from shop signage to left-over mannequins, The New York Times reports. But it’s not just a commercial proposition, they reveal:

“While a majority of buyers at these auctions are surplus buyers and may be more interested in things like light fixtures and racks… about 30 percent are collectors… [wanting to] own pieces of the corpse.”

On the one hand, it’s a good thing that these zombie mall parts are being recycled or finding a new home. It’s a sustainable and pragmatic way to deal with what’s a pretty grim situation. On the other hand, it makes the whole phenomenon even more ghoulish than it already is: not only has the life been ripped from the mall, but now its very skeleton is being dismembered, too.

Australia doesn’t have quite the same sort of ‘mall culture’ that America has, but the trend towards bigger and bigger retail experiences – at a time when online retail is taking up more and more of the retail pie – does not bode well for the Land Down Under.

The big challenge for brick-and-mortar retailers in Australia is ensuring that their in-store experience is better than their online experience. Malls can’t beat the Internet for convenience, but they can try and beat them on experience.

According to research conducted by Baker Consulting in 2018, there are 1,630 shopping centres in Australia which exceeded 1,000 square metres of gross lettable area, comprising of more than 65,000 speciality shops. The real question is this: is that many stores really sustainable in a country as small as Australia?

And will we see zombie malls cropping up here too?

Food for thought.

Author: James Weiss

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