What if Americans stop buying things they do not need?

COVID-19 has helped slow retail sales and one writer suggests this could be a tipping point toward a society where fewer Americans feel the compulsion to consume:

We’re trained to buy often, buy cheap, and buy a lot. And I’m not just talking about food, which everyone has to acquire in some capacity, or clothes. I mean all the other small purchases of daily life: a new face lotion, a houseplant holder, a wine glass name trinket, an office supply organizer, a vegetable spiralizer, a cute set of hand towels, a pair of nicer sunglasses, a pair of sports sunglasses, a pair of throwaway sunglasses. The stuff, in other words, that you don’t even know that you want until it somehow finds its way to your cart at Target or T.J. Maxx.

In post–World War II America, the vast majority of things we buy are often not what we actually need. But they’re indisputably things we want: manifestations of personal and collective abundance. We buy because we’re bored, or because planned obsolescence forces us to replace items we can’t fix. We buy to accumulate objects meant to communicate our class and what sort of person we are. We buy because we want to feel something or change something, and purchasing something is the quickest way to do so. When that doesn’t work, we buy “an experience,” whether it’s a night at Color Me Mine or a weekend bachelorette trip to Nashville. We buy because, from the Great Depression onward, how we consume has become deeply intertwined with how we think of ourselves as citizens…

And yet we keep spending: As of 2018, the average household expenditure was $61,224. That’s rent and groceries, but also nonessential items: entertainment, vacation, clothes, plus all that other random stuff that ends up in your shopping cart.

That kind of spending is what our current economic model is based on: Americans of all class levels buying things and always wanting to buy more, regardless of their actual means. But when a society-throttling, economy-decimating pandemic comes along, what happens when that ability — and, just importantly, that desire — goes away? In April, retail sales fell an astonishing 16.4%, far more than the 12.3% economists had predicted. Clothing store purchases went down by 78.8%; furniture and home furnishings plummeted 58.7%. If you feel like you’re buying far less than at any point in recent history, you’re very much not alone. But will American identities and habits actually change, or will we just figure out a new and COVID-19–compatible way to consume at the same rate as before?

The argument makes some sense: many people in the United States have now had a few months where they could not consume in the same ways. And there have been plenty of people in recent decades asking Americans to slow their consumption or change their habits, ranging from sociologist Juliet Schor discussing downsizing or tiny houses or the popularity of Marie Kondo.

Yet, here are a few obstacles to a slow down in consumerism:

  1. As noted in the article, decades of messaging from politicians, advertisers, companies, and residents that consumption is good and acquiring items is a key marker of living the good life. The American Dream is partly about having a lot of stuff.
  2. The interest Americans still have in buying houses. And since the supply is not great, prices may stay high.
  3. The ever-increasing prices of new vehicles and the Americans who want to endlessly purchase pickup trucks and SUVs.
  4. New technology items will continue to emerge, particularly smartphones. But also think about new video game consoles, virtual reality units, home camera systems, electric cars, and so on.
  5. The large houses Americans have compared to the rest of the world. They need to fill all that space with something!
  6. Online ordering makes it very convenient to consume items without much effort. If retailers disappear in large numbers or shopping malls fade away (except for the wealthiest ones),

Absent many more months of staying at home or a large collapse of the American economy, it will be hard to transition away from consumption as Americans have known it to another system.

Fitting COVID-19 into the cycles of American cities

Derek Thompson writes about how COVID-19’s effect on retail and restaurants will affect American cities:

The song of American urbanization plays on an accordion. Americans compressed themselves into urban areas in the early 20th century. By mid-century, many white families were fanning out into the suburbs. Then, in the early 21st century, young people rushed back into downtown areas. But in the past few years, American cities have begun to exhale many residents, who have moved to smaller metros and southern suburbs. As with so many other trends, the pandemic will accelerate that exodus. Empty storefronts will beget empty apartments on the floors above them.

The American cities waiting on the other side of this crisis will not be the same. They will be “safer” in almost every respect—healthier, blander, and more boring, with fewer tourists, less exciting food, and a desiccated nightlife. The urban obsession with well-being will extend from cycling and salads to mask design and social distancing. Many thousands of young people who might have giddily flocked to the most expensive downtown areas may assess the collapse in living standards and amenities and decide it’s not worth it. Census figures will show that the urban exodus went into hyperdrive in the COVID years. There will be headlines exclaiming the decline of the American city or, more punchy, “Americans to New York: ‘Drop Dead.’”

Then something interesting will happen. The accordion will constrict again and American cities will have a renaissance of affordability…

But the near death of the American city will also be its rebirth. When rents fall, mom-and-pop stores will rise again—America will need them. Immigrants will return in full force when a sensible administration recognizes that America needs them, too. Cheaper empty spaces will be incubators for stores that serve up ancient pleasures, like coffee and books, and novel combinations of health tech, fitness, and apparel. Eccentric chefs will return, and Americans will remember, if they ever forgot, the sacred joys of a private plate in a place that buzzes with strangers. From the ashes, something new will grow, and something better, too, if we build it right.

Several thoughts in response:

1. Thompson hints at one of the vital pieces that makes cities work: the density of people and activity. Restaurants and retailers are not just functional entities that provide jobs and revenue; they bring in extra people who want to visit, eat, browse, be around other people who are doing similar things. The kinds of everyday activity that make urban neighborhoods unique and attractive are difficult to maintain during COVID-19 when restrictions limit contact and social interaction.

2. After just reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities with one of my classes, I wonder: what would Jane Jacobs do in times of global pandemics?

3. Thompson describes populations moving in and out of American cities as conditions change. From a broader perspective, I am not sure I would agree with the accordion example: the longer-term trend in the United States since the early 1900s has been toward suburban growth and development. The percent of Americans living in cities has stayed relatively stable since the beginning of the postwar era while government policy, cultural ideology, and population shifts have swelled suburban populations. If American cities can gain and lose residents, it is a relatively small accordion compared to the tremendous suburban growth over the last century.

4. A problem with predicting future urban trends is that the patterns of the past may not happen again in the future. COVID-19 is the sort of event that is difficult to know the effects of, particularly years down the road. Will life return to normal or will the effects of a significant economic shutdown and shelter-in-place for many people change future behaviors? We do not know. At the same time, I do not think Thompson’s predictions are unreasonable. How exactly the affordability of land plays out could be an arduous process; land that was relatively overvalued before COVID-19 may not quickly become affordable and it may take time to clear significant debts or mortgages for numerous urban properties.

Chicago suburbs without property taxes – but perhaps not for much longer

In a region known for high property taxes, at least a few suburbs outside Chicago have no property taxes:

A town of about 40,000, Carol Stream managed to avoid a property tax even when another outlier, Schaumburg — a village with a much larger retail base — took the leap during the Great Recession.

But officials say Carol Stream is facing significant budget pressures from rising pension costs. If it maintains the status quo, projections also show the village would exhaust capital reserves during the third year of a five-year plan for roadwork and infrastructure projects…

In Oak Brook, another town that doesn’t charge a property tax, candidates in the last mayoral race took stock of the financial challenges from flat sales tax revenues. Carol Stream also saw a 2.4% drop in sales tax dollars — the village’s largest revenue source — from calendar years 2017 to 2018.

Suburbs have multiple ways to reduce or eliminate residential property taxes. Sales tax revenue can come from shopping malls, big box stores, and other retail options. Schaumburg and Oak Brook have sizable shopping malls surrounded by many more retailers. Communities can also seek out industry; Carol Stream founder Jay Stream intentionally set aside much land for industrial parks (which are still there). Some suburbs would not like this as industry could conflict with an ideal of quiet neighborhoods of single-family homes.

The article suggests these suburbs with no property taxes will have to reconsider because of declining sales tax revenues and rising pension costs. Given the fate of shopping malls and the problems facing retailers, even in successful malls in wealthy areas like in Oak Brook and Schaumburg, communities need additional revenue.

Suburbs typically do not have the ability to quickly counter declining sales tax revenues. In order to not have property taxes in the first place, certain decisions had to be made long ago. Then, later decisions build within a framework of no property taxes. Making changes to land use takes time for study, approval, development, and then reaping benefits. A suburb cannot say it wants to bring in more sales tax revenue and line up a set of retailers operating within a year.

The fate of these suburbs will be worth checking in five years to see whether they can hold on against levying property taxes.

(Reminder: this does not mean residents in these communities do not pay any property taxes. Rather, their suburbs do not collect property taxes even as school districts and other taxing bodies do.)

Bringing medical clinics to vacant shopping mall space

Filling emptying shopping malls can be a hard task. Add medical services to the list of possible replacement uses:

Mall of America in Minneapolis, America’s largest mall, announced plans last week to open a 2,300-square-foot walk-in clinic in November with medical exam rooms, a radiology room, lab space and a pharmacy dispensary service. Mall of America is teaming up with University of Minnesota physicians and a Minnesota-based health care system to operate the clinic…

While mall leases for clothing retailers declined by more than 10% since 2017, medical clinics at malls have risen by almost 60% during the same period, according to Drew Myers, real estate analyst at CoStar Group. The growth of medical clinic leases at malls has been the “strongest among all major retail sectors over the past five years,” he said.

Mall landlords are betting that when patients visit for a flu shot or eye exam, they’ll shop around for clothes or electronics. Adding medical clinics also makes sense for mall owners because they draw in doctors, nurses and technicians every day who may shop and eat at restaurants, according to a May research report by real estate firm JLL. Health care providers are also attractive tenants for mall landlords because they tend to have high credit ratings and sign longer leases compared with other retailers, JLL analysts noted.

On the provider and health insurer side, shopping malls give companies convenient locations to set up outpatient care posts and preventative care locations for patients. Providers are increasingly looking to these lower-cost clinics to help patients avoid expensive trips to the emergency room.

The medical offices can serve the new residents and commercial uses that are also now occupying shopping mall space in addition to blending shopping and medical trips (dubbed “medtail” in the article). Just wait until the new hospital takes over the mall and patients and visitors can walk out one door and into a clothing store down the hall.

More broadly, this hints at a blending of activity within single structures that suburbs are not used to. Suburbs are known for separating land uses, often with the goal of protecting single-family homes. Suburban downtowns, places where multiple uses might be found, are limited and now often seem geared more toward entertainment and cultural use. Could the shopping mall truly be a community center in the coming decades with more residential units, medical offices, and community spaces?

Another use for vacant retail buildings: schools

The Chicagoland suburb of Palatine is considering converting vacant retail space into a school:

Under the proposal, a shuttered Whole Foods Market and other adjacent space totaling about 80,000 square feet would be renovated for a maximum of 32 classrooms for kindergarten through sixth grade. The school would be in the Park Place shopping center opposite a Walmart, southeast of Dundee and Rand.

Stuckey Construction Co. Inc. of Waukegan would buy the space for about $4.1 million and spend another $13.8 million renovating it, Thompson said. He said District 15 would lease the building with an option to buy it within seven years if the idea receives school board approval…

As part of the plan, Park Place’s owner would build four retail buildings closest to Rand. The former T.J. Maxx/Home Goods portion of the plaza would be demolished to make room for the new retail section and a playground and sports fields covering 2 acres for the school.

District 15’s school at the mall would serve 750 to 800 children in the northeast area, where about 22 percent of the students live but don’t have a neighborhood school. Thompson said he projects the new school would have 74 percent Hispanic students and an overall low-income population of 70 percent.

As retail locations struggle, many communities are looking for answers as to how to use the vacant structures. There a number of possible options but rarely have I seen the idea of schools. I suspect converting these spaces to schools has several distinct advantages:

  1. It could reduce the amount of money needed to provide school buildings. Referendums or tax levies to build new structures often face opposition in suburban communities because of the cost. Additionally, the new school buildings might be in response to a relatively new need in the community tied to new growth but the building may not necessarily be needed in the long term. Converting an existing building could save money.
  2. Retailers often locate in key locations near major intersections. This could make accessing a school easier for a broader range of residents.

Yet, there would also be disadvantages to pursuing this strategy:

  1. Converting the retail structures into schools takes possible land off the tax rolls. Many communities hope vacant structures will be filled by land uses that will contribute property taxes and sales taxes. Schools provide neither.
  2. The location may be central or at a key point but residents often have images of what neighborhood schools should be: located in or very close to residential neighborhoods. Several concerned residents are quoted in this story and they raise safety concerns of being located near major roads and higher-crime areas.

I wonder if a school could also be viewed as a community anchor for a larger mixed-use plan in a redevelopment setting like this. Having some new residences alongside some retail space plus new community (school plus parks, plazas, etc.) could create a new neighborhood setting.

Seeing the real America at the ER Saturday at 10 PM and Walmart Sunday at 8 PM

I visited both of these locations in recent weeks and was intrigued to see the mix of people at each. I’ll make a quick case for why these locations could provide as good cross-section of America as any other location:

  1. Limited options. For the emergency room on a Saturday night, there are few other medical options available at that time. If anyone has a medical issue, they will end up here. As for Walmart on Sunday evening, there are limited brick and mortar shopping options and the work week is about to start.
  2. People need medical care and grocery/home items. Both locations have people trying to meet basic human needs. Even as online shopping may allow people to avoid other shoppers and online medical consultations are now available, there are inevitably moments where running out to a store or medical professional is necessary. It is hard to imagine either of these facilities disappearing completely (even if the number of retailers is severely reduced).
  3. Connected to #1 and #2 above, people of differences races, ethnicities, and social classes are at both locations. In many other locations, whether due to residential location, the location of jobs, ill will toward others, or access to resources, not all groups are represented. Sociologist Elijah Anderson wrote a book about such rare urban locations.

While these may not be the best locations in which to conduct research, they could offer insights into typical American life.

Thinking through “architecturally ambitious” shopping malls

One writer suggests the shopping malls of the future will need to offer a unique architectural experience:

My version of the mall game would offer more aggressive architectural interventions. Pop the top, and change the air-conditioned, enclosed food court into an open courtyard with a creek running through it. Cover the tan stucco with silvery panels to give it that au courant “industrial” look. Turn one section of the parking lot into a food truck rodeo, local vendors only. Replace the Dillards with a Spa Castle, or a Nitehawk Cinema. The mall of the future is architecturally ambitious, includes plants and water features, judiciously sprinkled with local retailers and food options, and surrounded not by a donut of surface parking lot but with housing, hotels, even educational facilities.

Don’t get me wrong: Malls are still dying. Credit Suisse estimated that 220 to 275 shopping centers, 20 to 25 percent of the current stock, would close within the next five years. We built too many, too cheaply. And it would cost too much to make many of them a worthy destination in 2018.

But even in the age of Amazon, people still leave the house, still shop, still eat. Malls have generated their own version of industrial ruin porn, including video. But when I talked to Erik Pierson, the man behind YouTube channel Retail Archaeology, he freely shared that, while his video of Mesa’s defunct Fiesta Mall may have gone viral, SanTan Village in Gilbert is doing just fine.

In an experience based society, going to the mall needs to be an exciting or satisfying experience compared to shopping at a big box store or purchasing items online.

Three thoughts about this suggestion:

  1. Only certain malls (and in certain areas) will have the resources to try to be architecturally ambitious and not all of them will get it right. My guess is that shopping malls in less well off communities will die off while those in wealthier areas will continue and will be the ones that take more architectural risks.
  2. Shopping malls have been criticized over the decades for their crass commercialism and their fakeness (acting like public spaces when they are really not, simulating other environments). Would more ambitious architecture make them more or less acceptable to critics? Take water features: they may be interesting to patrons but are they authentic design elements or just another symbol of the artificiality of the setting?
  3. What about creating malls that have flexible or changing architecture? Designing malls so that they have regularly changing features – as cited above, the “silvery panels” that provide an industrial look could be swapped out every 6 months with different kinds of panels – could help provide an element of novelty and excitement.

As is suggested in the article, perhaps the real secret is to better embed these ambitious malls in already interesting architectural settings. Instead of having to build a destination in the middle of a suburban parking lot, take advantage of already lively spaces and put an interesting and unique mall there.