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  1. Opinion

Hooper: Malls are more than retail centers

Published Apr. 5, 2017

BRANDON

I'm worried about what we lose if malls disappear, and I'm not talking about big sales and free food court chicken.

Payless Shoes filed for bankruptcy this week, Sears reportedly is on the brink of bankruptcy and Macy's and JCPenney are in the process of closing more than 100 stores across the country.

In the world of retail, the closures don't represent hiccups, they constitute a trend. As more and more people choose to do their shopping online, big department stores and mainstream clothing outlets continue to take a hit.

Carol Osborne, University of South Florida instructor of marketing and associate director of the Zimmerman advertising program, says malls have started to lose favor and it goes beyond Amazon and other internet outlets.

She says more people have become "buyers" instead of "shoppers," meaning while folks once went to the mall to browse and seek out bargains, they've now become more mission-driven, looking for a specific item and then leaving.

Men have long trended as buyers, Osborne explained, and now women have begun to follow suit.

She also observes that as some retailers struggle, the mall has become annoying.

"Because the stores are under pressure, you have pushy sales people," Osborne said. "As soon as you walk in, people are trying to spray you with perfume and put a shoe on you.

"When you walk by the kiosks, people are constantly trying to reach out to you. Going to the mall is like running the gauntlet."

On top of that, she sees her USF students moving away from chains and seeking out independents.

"Online is a big reason, but it's also a lifestyle change," Osborne said. "Cities are just different now. They no longer need to contain havens of sameness, and that's what malls really are."

Macy's, Sears and JCPenney, all struggling, stand as three of the anchors at Westfield Brandon. So why am I worried about capitalism working its magic. Economic survival of the fittest is the American way, right?

Well, I think Brandon specifically risks losing a gathering place, a center for connectivity.

Seniors get their morning walks in at Westfield Brandon. Kids line up to get photos with Santa or the Easter Bunny. Tweens and teens convene to while away restless afternoons. Families celebrate special dinners. All at the mall.

Osborne suggested creating new gathering places, free from the culture of consumption that consumes some teenagers.

And that sounds great for downtown Tampa dwellers who flock to Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park for concerts, or dine along 7th Avenue in Ybor City.

Out here, however, it's not a coincidence that division can be found in the word "subdivision." Suburbia inherently lacks a strong sense of cohesion and the mall — right or wrong — stands as one of the few places with the potential to pull people together for simple community events.

As crazy as this sounds, I missed fighting through traffic snarls last year to watch fireworks on the Fourth of July at Westfield Brandon. And the mall still remains an amazing place to people watch.

The mall will seek to re-invest in strong-performing stores and eliminate the weak outlets. Converting big box stores to more utilitarian options such as grocery stores or fitness centers remains possible.

But if I owned the mall, I would put more dollars into community events. The more it can maintain its role as a gathering spot, the better chance it has of surviving the changing retail landscape. If malls go away, suburban pockets like Brandon will need county government to create more places that promote connectivity. Maybe the county should do that, anyway.

Because without a sense of community, we're just a bunch of houses, scattered over former groves and farms that bear phony-sounding majestic names.

That's all I'm saying.