Full Occupancy: Mall Madness and Evolution of the American Shopping Mall

As a born and bred indoor kid of the 90s, board games were one of my favorite activities on weekends and school breaks. We had all the classics: Clue, Monopoly, Outburst, Scattergories (does that count?), all glorious in their own way. While many board games are timeless, one holds a certain nostalgic feel of (not so) long ago times: Mall Madness.

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Original, fully intact 90s goodness. Anyone else think that chick looks like DJ Tanner?

It’s a fairly straightforward game: be the first to buy 6 items (or, if you’re feeling frisky, 10) off your shopping list and make it back to your car to claim consumer glory. However, there are ways the game is kept interesting and provides strategy. For example, there are always two stores having a sale and one having a (gasp) CLEARANCE! Sometimes, the snotty store clerk will tell you that your item costs $5 more or he’ll be a real jerk and inform you the item you want is out of stock. Life is hard, guys.

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The adult way to play Mall Madness: wine and festively colored macarons

As simple as it is, part of Mall Madness’ charm is the fact that it reeks of the 80s and 90s. Do you need a tape deck from the electronics store? Or how about swinging by the bookstore after we hit the arcade? (my heart wept typing that. RIP Borders) Even in the late 90s when we first got it, some of it was already feeling outdated. In my nearly 28 years, I cannot remember when I’ve ever seen a telephone store; my Mom remembers them, but can’t think of the last time she’s seen one. Nowadays, a phone store to me is a Verizon or AT&T store where one gets cell and smartphones. It’s crazy to think about how many of the stores in Mall Madness don’t exist in many indoor malls anymore: no bookstores, no camera stores, and any computer stores now are the uber-sophisticated Apple and Windows stores. Even though Mall Madness is clearly a product of its time, it doesn’t make it any less fun for me and my friends who also loved playing it. If anything, it’s nice to remember what an event going to the mall was.

As much as I still love playing Mall Madness, it does make me uneasy as a highly sentimental person. The American shopping mall has not been doing so well in the past 10-15 years and is considered to be on a heavy decline. Once a powerhouse in the 70s and 80s and reasonably stable in the 90s, the profitability of malls starting falling in the early 2000s. Many factors are considered to contribute to the steady failure of suburban malls; online shopping, the 2008 economic recession, and the growing preference for technological and experiential purchases over clothing and general “stuff”. Especially in the wake of the recession, discount shopping at stores like Target, Marshalls, and thrift stores were becoming more popular than their higher-end counterparts Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister (I can’t say I’m sad about this; nobody needs a paper-thin t-shirt for $20 just because it says “Hollister”). Online shopping is undoubtedly convenient and oftentimes cheaper than buying from a store. And who can fault someone for wanting to save his/her pennies for a nice vacation over more clothes, shoes, and handbags? Shoot, we’ve lived in our house for nearly 10 years and never got around to building a deck since we wanted to go on vacation more. While the causes for the decline in shopping malls are certainly not bad and, in many ways, are the product of Americans rethinking how they’d like to spend their money, watching a mall go under is still a sad sight to behold.

For those of you who venture to the educational side of YouTube, I highly recommend the videos made by Dan Bell (The Dead Mall Series) and Jake Williams (Abandoned). They have video footage of malls in their last legs of existence and impressively thorough research of the malls’ history and dissent into closure. Of particular interest to me are their videos on Rolling Acres Mall (here and here). I grew up in a suburb of Akron and while we didn’t frequent it as much as Chapel Hill Mall or Summit Mall, knowing that a mall in our area was becoming infamous as a “dead mall” was unnerving. For my family, it was the “waterfall mall”, with its impressive futuristic-looking water fountain and lighted glass elevator. However, it was shocking to see what the mall looked like once the photos and footage surfaced after it had officially been abandoned.

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Above: the “waterfall” water fountain on a good day. Below: the fountain after it had been stripped by metal scrappers

I guess it’s been hitting close to home because it seems like Chapel Hill, the mall of my childhood, is going the same path. I was there not too long ago to return some items to JCPenney and took a lap just to see what had changed (or, more accurately, who was still hanging on). 2 of 3 anchor stores had closed, many stores were left vacant, others were going out of business, and very few looked like they were still actually worth visitng. I remember going there as a kid for back-to-school clothes shopping, hiding out in Waldenbooks/Borders Express and KayBee Toys, and have countless pictures of my sisters and me in front of holiday decorations and on mini train rides in our albums. It really was a nice, family-friendly place to spend a few hours. As much as I hate to say it, I wouldn’t be surprised if I see Dan and Jake around town in the next few years.

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This was Waldenbooks turned Borders Express turned hippie memorabilia store. Another hippie store opened up where Carlton Cards used to be; I don’t think either survived

That being said, I haven’t been to a mall in ages, so I can’t say my example is contributing to a solution or revival. I love visiting Easton Town Center in Columbus (I used to work at the Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams there, go get the Pistachio and Honey) because it’s open air and feels more like a place to hang out rather than exclusively shop. I also like supporting local businesses and saving my money for unique finds or things I actually need (tea) rather than shopping for the sake of shopping. While Chapel Hill holds so many happy childhood memories for me, I was itching to leave after I walked around because it felt so alien and uncomfortable. The times are changing and I have to keep rolling, I suppose.

The shopping mall seems to be slowly becoming a fixture of the past. While some may survive, their standardization in the suburbs is fading as retail is constantly evolving to best suit the needs of the consumer. In spite of this, Mall Madness is always at full occupancy and bustling with activity. As dated as it inevitably is, Amazon Madness doesn’t pack quite the same punch. It’s one of my little pieces of the 90s I can hang onto. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go get that tape deck before it’s out of stock. Meet me in the arcade after?

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. teawithmargo says:

    I’ve never heard of this board game. Looks like it would be fun to play; especially with wine and macarons! I also have fond memories of the mall experience, but from the 80’s AND 90’s. I suspect a different version of the mall (but essentially the same thing) will cycle back into our culture at some point.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. geekyteatime says:

      I never really got into the whole “OMG, I’m a teenage girl at the mall!!!” phase, but it was a nice family outing for us. I was recently watching “The 80s: The Decade that Made Us” and had no idea there was such a culture behind it, especially with valley girls. Based on what I’ve read, the next big thing is lifestyle” type centers. I used to work at Easton Town Center in Columbus and don’t live too far from Crocker Park outside Cleveland, which are both open air and have swanky apartments and higher-end restaurants than one would find at an indoor mall, so I think that’ll be the goal for malls in the future. Only a downer in sub-zero weather

      Liked by 1 person

      1. teawithmargo says:

        I will check out that show, sounds interesting. I live in Colorado Springs and we have a few of the “lifestyle” centers here (and in Denver). I don’t visit much during our cold snaps, that’s for sure!

        Liked by 1 person

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