The way we choose to shop, and the way retailers decide to sell us things, is an ever evolving relationship. And as new ideas emerge and come to dominate (“It’s one place with everything — a department store!”) they inevitably fall out of favor and give way to the next brainstorm (think Amazon’s 1-Click).
In central New Jersey, monuments to retail’s changing fortunes can be found within a short drive of each other, helping document the past, present and the future of shopping.
When the Burlington Center Mall opened in Burlington Township in 1982, it meant shoppers did not have to travel to downtown Trenton or even Philadelphia for the latest fashions, children’s high chairs or gas-powered lawn mowers. Thirty-five years later, the edifice still stands, but the mall is barely there. After Macy’s and J. C. Penney closed, it was only a matter of time before smaller stores began shutting their doors for good.
About 20 miles to the south, on what was once farmland, there is a beehive of activity. In the predawn light, buses pick up and drop off workers who enter a gigantic low-slung building.
At Amazon’s fulfillment center in Robbinsville, N.J., more than 4,000 people and an indeterminate number of robots store, pick, pack and ship the company’s countless inventory, sometimes for same-day delivery. Inside the building, 10 miles of conveyor belts are the veins and arteries of this outpost of the e-commerce giant.
Following in Amazon’s giant footsteps, other e-commerce companies are providing a more specialized retail service.
In Cranbury, a 15-minute drive from Robbinsville, Wayfair, an online retailer that focuses on home goods, has a warehouse that covers 1.2 million square feet and stands 40 feet tall.
The inventory ranges from teakettles to brass beds, all stored on shelves and available for two-day free shipping. The idea is that you can buy your next couch without getting up from your couch.
But for all the attention and urgency that online shopping attracts, the vast majority of purchases are still made in person, in places like Kmart in Hamilton Township, before a checkout counter, with a purse or wallet in hand.
In the last three months of 2016, Americans spent $102.7 billion in online sales, which was 8.3 percent of the overall total of $1.24 trillion in retail sales. Many of those dollars were spent at strip malls, sometimes known as power centers in the trade.
But don’t confuse familiarity with success. Sears, which owns Kmart stores, announced in January it would close 109 Kmart locations. And last month, its parent company said there was “substantial doubt” that it could continue operating.
Stories like these mean that we are increasingly confronted with the carcasses of retail’s past.
“Zombie malls,” as they are known, are increasingly dotting the suburban landscape. The lights are on, the escalators keep moving, but their purpose in life has gone. Burlington Center has less than 20 tenants — including a Sears and a Foot Locker — but once had more than 100. Last Wednesday a woman came to the mall looking for shoes, and left frustrated because the Payless store had just shuttered.
Two years ago the mall’s owners announced a $230 million renovation that would include an open-air town center. But the plans have stalled.
Not all Americans, however, have given up on malls, and for a handful of properties around the country, times have never been so good.
About an hour north of Burlington Center is the Mall at Short Hills, in Millburn Township, which boasts four big-name anchors — Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom — as well as stores like Tiffany & Co. and Bulgari. Shoppers can arrange for same-day home delivery of purchases; for those wanting to stay longer, the mall helpfully offers a list of nearby hotels and inns.
The Mall at Short Hills is part of a rare breed, benefiting from a wealthy demographic (the Millburn, Morristown and Summit areas) and an evolving lineup of tenants and services. Of the more than 1,300 malls analyzed by Green Street Advisors, a research and advisory firm, it is one of only about 35 to attain an A++ rating, based on metrics like sales per square foot, quality of anchor tenants and other factors.
The buying experience continues to morph. In just the past decade, cheaper internet access and the arrival of smartphones pushed traditional retailers onto the web. Now, some of these web retailers are beginning to cross back into the brick-and-mortar world. Amazon has opened a handful of bookstores, appealing to those who like to touch and feel (and smell?) their books before buying.
Bonobos, an online retailer of men’s clothing, is further blurring these distinctions. Saying “it’s not the perfect fit before you try it on,” Bonobos has opened more than 30 shops around the country where customers can try on clothes and find the best fit.
But you don’t walk out of the store with your purchase — instead, you walk out empty-handed. What you bought is shipped to your door.
The atmosphere was hushed in a Bonobos store in Manhattan this past week. Shoppers tend to make appointments, a representative said, and weekends can become especially busy.
One reason for the success of some retail operations are property owners who can “pivot to meet market demands,” said DJ Busch, managing director at Green Street Advisors. “Those are the ones that can weather the changes in the marketplace.” This often means more emphasis on dining and entertainment. For failing malls, Mr. Busch said, it could mean sacrificing mall space for office or residential development.