Malls in a Digital Age: Where Did All The Mall Rats Go

Words By Ambar Ramirez


I pull off to what I imagine used to be a packed parking lot, teeming with eager shoppers ready to spend away. Now, Regency Square Mall reflects what most low-tier shopping promenades look like, a ghost town. On one end of the mall, I recall getting tested for COVID at what must’ve been a Sears, on the other end Impact church stands where Belk once was. And what was once a large JCPenney has been refurbished into a car dealership. 


But it’s not just Regency Square mall that has faced what seems to be the end of an era. According to a report by Credit Suisse, one in four U.S. malls will close by 2022. Even the beloved department stores where you could find anything from kitchen utensils to shoes are having to file for bankruptcy as society and malls enter a new age. 


Not too long ago I was scrolling through an old “Folio Weekly” (the Aug. 8, 2000 issue, to be exact). On the cover, three girls happily pose in front of Orange Park Mall. In the background, a large group of people gathered at what used to be the place to hang out. Back in the day, they were called “mall rats,” frequent mall goers who would go to the mall for social purposes.


I too remember putting on my best outfit and hitting the mall with my closest friends. With no plans of buying anything at all, we would maybe try on a couple of wedding gowns for fun and shove spoonfuls of Dippin’ Dots ice cream in our mouths while we walked through the crowded paths. 


Nowadays, it seems like all the mall rats have gone underground, under where the booming malls once stood. Or maybe they have moved on to more hip and luxurious shopping destinations dubbed “outdoor lifestyle malls.” While the traditional malls we once knew may be dying, those that evolved fast enough are becoming more than just structures full of stores, stores and more stores. 


In order to recover from the pandemic and lost business, malls had to either elevate the shopping experience or put up “for sale” signs. The malls that survived started to incorporate tenants like yoga studios and high-end restaurants. Those that didn’t see the writing on the wall sold vacated spaces to corporations and offices. 


It’s not just the pandemic that we have to blame for the change in shopping habits. It’s tied to what is causing most businesses to sell out, the internet. Or, more so, internet giants like Amazon that can have your product delivered right to your doorstep within a day or two. The option of finding exactly what you are looking for online within seconds and at any time of day or night, compared to having to walk around aimlessly from store to store when the stores are actually open does not require much thought of the part of consumers. And it definitely does not leave much room for low-tier properties to compete. 


But before the internet, smartphones and online shopping, traditional malls were the place to be. Especially at the height of the consumerist culture with decked-out store displays and stores like Hollister and Abercrombie that attracted mall goers with their signature (and slightly addictive) scents, there was <nowhere> else to be. Now, the culture has digressed from buying what everyone has to wanting something unique. Shopping from second-hand stores or being more conscious of which companies they buy from has also increased as a result.


Because of this shift, stores that took up the majority of space at these traditional malls are having to file for bankruptcy. The gilded-age icon Sears has lost millions in revenue, laid off thousands of employees and recently reorganized due to bankruptcy. In fact, the world famous Sears Tower in Chicago, now called Willis Tower, now serves as home to a global insurance broker. Neiman Marcus, Gordmans and Barneys have all filed for bankruptcy in recent years, while some like Lord & Taylor have shut down retail outlets for good. Even Dillard’s at Regency Square Mall, the one department store still standing, regressed into a clearance center.


So it is time to say goodbye to walking around with hands full of bags from various stores and to sampling food court cuisine you would never otherwise eat. And say hello to where all the mall rats have gone: food bars and high-end designer stores. 


About Ambar Ramirez

Flipping through magazines for as long as she can remember, Ambar Ramirez has always known she wanted to be a journalist. Fast forward, Ambar is now a multimedia journalist and creative for Folio Weekly. As a recent graduate from the University of North Florida, she has written stories for the university’s newspaper as well as for personal blogs. Though mainly a writer, Ambar also designs and dabbles in photography. If not working on the latest story or design project, she is usually cozied up in bed with a good book or at a thrift store buying more clothes she doesn’t need.