When American Apparel announced its closing in January, it may have felt like the end of an era, but it was hardly surprising. The brand had been mired in controversy for years. But there were other, less scandalous reasons: How we shop and where we shop is changing. Undeniably and in myriad ways. For those of us who spent our formative years scouring malls for prom dresses and who now mindlessly fill up online shopping carts, this shift has felt very literal. Shopping is an entirely different beast today than it was.
It’s hard to call this change drastic; it’s been happening for years. Still, the mass closing of stores over the past few months has been jarring. Macy’s, JCPenney and Sears have announced the shuttering of hundreds of locations and the consequent laying off of thousands. Rue21, Payless, Claire’s and Bebe have filed for bankruptcy or are close (RIP your sexy homecoming look). Neiman Marcus has said it may sell itself after abandoning its plan to IPO in January due to poor sales.
This sea change isn’t confined to the mall. In “Is American Retail at a Historic Tipping Point?,” The New York Times notes, “Along the cobblestone streets of SoHo, Chanel handbags and Arc’teryx jackets are displayed in shops like museum pieces, harking back to the height of the neighborhood’s trendiness. But rents there are softening, and the number of vacant storefronts is rising.”
According to Bloomberg, US stores are closing at a record rate. “2,880 have been announced so far this year, compared with 1,153 for this period of 2016.” It’s apparently outpacing the great recession.
While the obvious culprit is e-commerce, it seems not everyone agrees on which exact tides led retail to where it is now. In reviewing coverage everywhere from The New York Times to Business of Fashion to WWD to Bustle to Racked, I found plenty of disparate theories. Some say young people are more interested in experiences and community these days. Others say malls aren’t going away, they’re just becoming fewer and better to accommodate taste changes. Some chalk it up to the cyclical nature of business. Others reference a shift away from fast fashion. Many, of course, say shoppers have moved online — and that this movement is a one-way ticket.
Each point can be sliced a million ways, and it’s worth pointing out that dropping numbers don’t necessarily spell a mass exodus. According to Cowen research as cited by Bloomberg, “Customers [still] prefer physical stores 75 percent of the time.” And, as Racked pointed out in “The Case for the American Mall,” higher-end malls — as a luxury subset — are not dying in this climate, but “flourishing.”
Which of those above rings truest to your experience? Over the weekend I was thinking a lot about this, actually, because I discovered this whole retail pocket of Instagram — vintage stores selling one-of-a-kind items via DM — I’d never seen before. I AM THAT, Na Nin Vintage, Courtyard_LA…I found their curated, minimal approach so charming: One special item at a time, photographed beautifully, but realistically and without fuss. It changed the way I wanted to shop and made me realize that my shopping behavior is also evolving. I go about it differently now than I did five years ago, last year…even last month. Do you feel the same way? How have your habits changed? Where, how and why do you shop?
Illustration by Maria Jia Ling Pitt.