Our guest this week is Alexandra Lange, famed architecture and design critic, and author of the brand new best-seller Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall. In a wide-ranging interview we get Alexandra's perspectives on the history and cultural significant of shopping malls.
Our guest this week is Alexandra Lange, famed architecture and design critic, and author of the brand new best-seller Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall. In a wide-ranging interview we get Alexandra's perspectives on the history and cultural significant of shopping malls. We dig into the fascinating story of Victor Gruen and how his design ideas shaped the evolution of regional malls for decades. Then we explore how malls began to lose their relevance, particularly as department stores increasingly found themselves stuck in the boring middle. Lastly wonder what's next for malls and what it might take for them to have a remarkable future.
But first we give our hot-takes on the latest retail news, including shaky earnings reports from several wobbly unicorns: Warby Parker, Allbirds and The Real Real, contrasting their performance with Yeti's wholesale first growth strategy. We also discuss Signet's fire sale priced acquisition of one of the OG's of DTC, Blue Nile, before wrapping up with Bed, Bath & Beyond's decision to bail on one of its new private brands ("Wild Sage") after its rookie season.
GroceryShop discount offer:
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Past podcast episodes of note:
Understanding Warby Parker and Customer-Based Valuation with Dan McCarthy
The Great Wholesale v. DTC Debate with Simeon Siegel
Alexandra Lange is a design critic. Her essays, reviews and profiles have appeared in numerous design publications including Architect, Harvard Design Magazine, and Metropolis, as well as in The Atlantic, New York Magazine, The New Yorker, and the New York Times. She is a columnist for Bloomberg CityLab, and has been a featured writer at Design Observer, an opinion columnist at Dezeen, and the architecture critic for Curbed.
Her latest book, Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall, was published by Bloomsbury USA in June 2022.
Her previous book, The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids was published by Bloomsbury USA in 2018. Research for the book was supported by a grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. Design of Childhood was named one of Planetizen’s Top 10 Urban Planning Books of 2018 and has been an assigned text in art and architecture studios at ASU, Columbia, Harvard, MIT, UPenn, VCU and Yale.
Alexandra is also the author of Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012), a primer on how to read and write architecture criticism, as well as the e-book The Dot-Com City: Silicon Valley Urbanism (Strelka, 2012), which considers the message of the physical spaces of Facebook, Google, and Apple.
In 2021, Alexandra became editorial advisor to the podcast New Angle: Voice, produced by the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation. The podcast showcases the work of pioneering women of American architecture, and the first five-episode season featured Julia Morgan, Natalie de Blois, Helen Fong, Norma Sklarek and Florence Knoll. Several episodes were broadcast on 99 Percent Invisible.
Alexandra co-wrote and co-produced “Masters of Modern Design: The Art of the Japanese American Experience,” a 2019 KCET Artbound documentary on Japanese American designers in the postwar era, which was based on one of her Curbed columns. “Masters of Modern Design” won a 2020 LA Area Emmy Award.
Radio and podcast appearances include NPR Weekend Edition and Marketplace, as well as Studio 360, 99 Percent Invisible, Decoder Ring, The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC and Think on KERA. Alexandra has lectured widely at universities, museums and design conferences on topics ranging from the history of women architecture critics to the opulent modernism of Alexander Girard to the best use of social media by architects. She has also taught design criticism at New York University and the School of Visual Arts.
Alexandra was a 2014 Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. She won a 2018 New York Press Club Award for Feature Reporting – Internet for her Curbed story, “No Loitering, No Skateboarding, No Baggy Pants,” on teens and public space. In 2019, she was awarded a Steven Heller Prize for Cultural Commentary by AIGA. In 2020, Alexandra was the recipient of the Stephen A. Kliment Oculus Award from AIA New York, given to architectural journalists. She was also awarded the 2020 BRIO Prize by the eponymous Swedish toy company, which honors researchers and non-profits focused on creating a better world through play.
Alexandra has long been interested in the creation of modern domestic life, a theme running through Design Research: The Store that Brought Modern Living to American Homes (Chronicle, 2010), which she co-authored with Jane Thompson, as well as her contributions to Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America (Yale, 2018), Alexander Girard: A Designer’s Universe (Vitra, 2016), Formica Forever (Metropolis, 2013), and Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future (Yale, 2006). Her latest contributions on the topic include a chapter on design for children in Scandinavian Design and the United States, 1890 – 1980 (Prestel, 2020) and the foreword to Designing Motherhood (MIT Press, 2021). Her 2005 dissertation, “Tower Typewriter and Trademark: Architects, Designers and the Corporate Utopia, 1956-1964,” discussed the design programs and design networks at postwar American corporations.
Steve Dennis is an advisor, keynote speaker and author on strategic growth and business innovation. You can learn more about Steve on his website. The expanded and revised edition of his bestselling book Remarkable Retail: How To Win & Keep Customers in the Age of Disruption is now available at Amazon or just about anywhere else books are sold. Steve regularly shares his insights in his role as a Forbes senior contributor and on Twitter and LinkedIn. You can also check out his speaker "sizzle" reel here.
Michael LeBlanc is the Founder & President of M.E. LeBlanc & Company Inc and a Senior Advisor to Retail Council of Canada as part of his advisory and consulting practice. He brings 25+ years of brand/retail/marketing & eCommerce leadership experience, and has been on the front lines of retail industry change for his entire career. Michael is the producer and host of a network of leading podcasts including Canada’s top retail industry podcast, The Voice of Retail, plus Global E-Commerce Tech Talks , The Food Professor with Dr. Sylvain Charlebois and now in its second season, Conversations with CommerceNext! You can learn more about Michael here or on LinkedIn.
Be sure and check out Michael's latest venture for fun and influencer riches - Last Request Barbecue, his YouTube BBQ cooking channel!
Michael LeBlanc 00:06
Welcome to Remarkable Retail podcast, Season 5, Episode 6, presented by MarketDial. I'm Michael LeBlanc.
Steve Dennis 00:12
And I'm Steve Dennis.
Michael LeBlanc 00:14
Well, Steve, we've got a very special guest. We are in the shopping mall industry today we've got Alexandra Lange, who's great book, Meet Me by the Fountain, attracted both our attentions in an inside history of the mall. And it's a fascinating look at shopping malls from someone who isn't a retailer, but rather, how would you describe her more like I mean she's got an architecture, background and sociology. How did you come across the book and how would you describe Alexandra?
Steve Dennis 00:43
Well, I, I don't actually remember how I came across the book probably like a recommendation on Amazon or, or something like that. But yeah, she's I mean, her, her primary trade is an architecture critic, but she's got a really, as you alluded to this sociology, anthropology kind of, kind of background. And so, yeah, she doesn't, she's not a retailer. I don't know, you know, I found it really fascinating having been having been in retail, a long time, having worked for a couple of mall based department stores and continuing to consult on occasion to, to people that have mall-based formats, primarily. So, yeah, a really, really in depth. Interesting story with a real kind of sociology, anthropol-, anthropological lens on it.
Michael LeBlanc 01:30
Oh, well, let's remind everyone that we'll be in Las Vegas for Groceryshop, and we got an offer code for retailers that want to attend that's. I'll put a link in the show notes. I'll put that offer code into the show notes. So, look us up, we're going to be talking grocery and all that great stuff in, in Las Vegas.
Michael LeBlanc 01:49
Let's talk about the news. We maybe we should have called this the wobbly unicorn episode. But we do seem to have some, some news coming out in a pretty rapid fashion, one, one after the other that some of these unicorns, they're struggling, right, these disrupter brands.
Steve Dennis 02:06
Yeah, it was a big week. We talked about Allbirds layoffs last week, in ant-, ti-, and, you know, that made me think that their earnings were not going to be so great and that turned out to be right. We had Warby Parker report, Allbirds report and The RealReal, I've picked up on this wobbly unicorn phrasing.
Steve Dennis 02:27
Several smart alecks on social media pointed out to me that Allbirds and The RealReal are no longer unicorns. So, unicorns, by the way, if people aren't familiar with the term, are, are these it's a venture capital term about brands that have gotten to 1 billion dollar valuations. And all three brands that reported this week, at one point had multi-billion dollar valuations. But two of the three don't anymore. But anyway, let's, let's just tick them off quickly.
Steve Dennis 02:53
So, Allbirds, the sustainable shoe company, they had a sales increase of I think was about 15%, which is kind of anemic when you think about a brand at their stage of development. But the big news was they managed to lose, I think was about 29 million dollars. Which included also a big inventory write-down I think about 11 million dollars in inventory. They took a write-down on so that's not so awesome. They're now up to 46 stores planning to open, -
Michael LeBlanc 03:28
They just they just opened one in Toronto, actually, this week, they opened up in a Yorkdale Shopping Center, great shopping center, they opened their, their second they opened in Vancouver about a month ago. So, that makes, (crossover talk), -
Steve Dennis 03:38
Yeah, I think I think they've got about a dozen maybe International. So, more to come there. But you know, you would think with the growth of the brand and all these new retail stores that their sales growth would be a little bit better. But anyway, they're, they're continuing to struggle to be profitable, their stock is down. Let's see 85% or 83%, since when they went public and I went back, because I remember talking about Allbirds right after they went public on the podcast, and saying that I thought their 4 billion dollar valuation was crazy. So, I every once in a while I will get one of my predictions, right. It turns out, (crossover talk) that, -
Michael LeBlanc 04:20
Like Forrest Gump crazy is as crazy does, (crossover talk), or, -
Steve Dennis 04:23
Exactly so they were at four billion and they're now at about 725 million. So, that's quite a fall from grace.
Steve Dennis 04:31
Warby Parker, also recorded about a 14% sales increase and a pretty significant loss. Their loss actually got even bigger than it had been, which is not so great. They also guided that they thought they would only be in the eight to 10% sales increase range for the year. So, that's quite, quite concerning, I would say, they did announce some additional layoffs. They are now at, I think 170 something stores. So, pretty sizable.
Steve Dennis 05:12
Just quickly on to The Real, Real kind of a similar story actually very, very strong revenue increase about 47%, I think was there year-over-year increase. Now a lot of apparel players are, of course, particularly the higher end, apparel players are comparing to pretty weak numbers. But, but same story, very significant operating loss 34%, negative operating margin, again, for a business that's been around for a while, so yeah, pretty, pretty challenging times.
Steve Dennis 05:39
Now, I did want to mention quickly, because I sometimes get feedback that I seem to be just really negative on these new DTC brands, or digitally native vertical brands, or whatever you want to call them. And it's really not that I'm negative. It's just that I think that some of the investment premises that, that launched these brands, and some of the money that has gone into trying to grow them has just been very poorly directed. And there was really a misunderstanding of the underlying economics, you know, which we talked about in an earlier episode with, with Dan McCarthy.
Steve Dennis 06:14
But there are plenty of direct-to-consumer brands that performed quite well, including some that are kind of the same vintage. So, Yeti was one of the ones I was, (crossover talk), taking a look at. Now, Yeti started after Wayfair. But before Warby Parker back in 2006, but they have grown to be a multi-billion dollar brand. With very strong operating performance, their operating margins are around 11%, I think their market cap is greater than the three of these companies combined.
Steve Dennis 06:45
So, if you look at Yeti their, their fundamental strategy was really to start first with wholesale. And even though you don't get the full margin that you get through direct-to-consumer, you don't have to spend nearly the amount of marketing nor have a lot of the overhead support to build the brand. So, they built that brand awareness, through wholesale partnerships, and then started to emphasize eCommerce and have started to open their own stores, they actually don't have that many of their own stores. At this point, though, the mix is switching pretty aggressively to direct-to-consumer and they are getting that, that higher margin now, -
Michael LeBlanc 07:20
They just lau-, they justlaunched a dedicated Canadian eCommerce site, which is new. They don't have a store here, I think they got eight or 10 stores in the US but they, they seemed to like they put a lot of money into, into their product, right? They said let's make up fantastic category creating product and take it to retailers and you know. They're choosy about which retailers they take it to. I think they just pulled out of like Lowe's for example, like they said, we don't want to be in big box stores we want to be in specialty or our own or direct or. So, it's very, (crossover talk), very strategic to me.
Steve Dennis 07:49
Yeah, they are sort of pulling a Nike and so, you know, a lot obviously has changed over the past 10 or 15 years. So, it's a little bit harder to completely compare the different strategies as being apples to apples. But I think it is interesting that most of these direct-to-consumer brands that believe they could build brands first, you know, entirely online. But then it was like, well, now we need our own stores are now actually looking to wholesale as perhaps I don't know the salvation but a way to try to get these brands to be closer to their full potential and impro-, somewhat ironically, improve their profitability.
Michael LeBlanc 08:28
I think it could be a great episode for us to actually get Simeon on and talk about, you know, get (inaudible) three of us chatting. I mean, there is examples like Nick's for example, here in Canada, fantastic Canadian pure play, built a, a unique product, great team and they just actually sold to a Swedish company for 320 mil. Blue Nile, speaking of pure play startups, Blue Nile got bought by Signet, right. So, talk about that. What do you what do you think about maybe that's the case that proves that you can build a pure play to a certain point, but eventually, it's got to be something bigger. What do you think of that Blue Nile acquisition?
Steve Dennis 09:01
Well, some people may know Blue Nile it's kind of one of the OGs of DTC. They've been around quite a while I do think at some point, they were valued, I didn't go back to look at this. But you know, they were, they were sort of in the pets.com era, I think of, (crossover talk), of startups and managed, managed to stay around. And I do think they were valued over a billion dollars at, at one point, but they were taken private think by Bain Capital four or five years ago for 500 and something million dollars, and then they got sold just this past week for 360 million. And they suppose they have about $500 million a year in revenue. So, that would be kind of in the vicinity of a Warby Parker, but you know, that's not a very good multiple. So, presumably, this is, (crossover talk), this is not a business, -
Michael LeBlanc 09:46
I just doing the math here, wait a minute.
Steve Dennis 09:48
So, presumably, this is a business that is not making much of any money, but for Signet who owns several, (crossover talk), jewelry companies, Zales being probably the most, most famous one. It's, it's, uh, you know, a way to get some, I'm sure pretty well developed eCommerce capabilities and a bunch of customers and, and give them that, that famous omni-channel experience. So, I think it's interesting what I think it will be. I mean, I believe that we will see more consolidation of some of these brands that have built, you know, sizable business, good brand awareness, but do not have the economics to stand alone as a, a private equity funded company or, or go pub-, or go and stay public. As you know, we saw Casper come up the public markets and get acquired as well. So, I think we'll see more, more consolidation.
Michael LeBlanc 10:41
Now let's talk about let's talk about Bed, Bath & Beyond. So, the smart money seems to be going in two different directions. So, on the one hand, their stock price went up, I don't know, 40%, or some crazy amount like that. But on the other hand, they're putting the fork in some private, pri-, private labels that they just got started with. So, what's going on there?
Steve Dennis 10:59
Well, it's kind of Bed Bath & Beyond ridiculous at a certain point, because it, it's, it's, you know, quite, quite a train wreck. So, as we talked about several episodes ago, Mark Triton, who came in a few years ago to turn the thing around, got, got the boot. There's no interim CEO, and they're starting to make some moves to try to salvage the company, they've got actually a pretty weak capital structure. So, there's, there's definitely some sense of urgency here to try to write the ship.
Steve Dennis 11:29
So, Wild Sage, which lots of people are making fun of the, the name of this private brand of the old inter-webs was one of those private label brands that, that Triton launched just about a year ago and that has been shot. So, I, I suspect we will continue to see some pruning of the unproductive merchandise, probably some store closings, some additional cost reductions to try to get this thing in a place where it's not hemorrhaging cash. So, it's a it's a pretty sad story. I mean, I think they've gotten kind of like where I feel Toys R Us got to a few years ago, where they've gotten in pretty much an untenable position where it was very difficult for them to raise the capital they needed to make some of the changes. And so, it just, just kind of could be a death by 1000 cuts. But this is a pretty big cut, I guess.
Michael LeBlanc 12:19
Okay, that's a wrap on Hot Takes news. Now just before we get to our excellent interview with Alexandra Lange from her book, Meet Me by the Fountain. Let's hear from our presenting sponsor.
Michael LeBlanc 12:31
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Steve Dennis 13:04
Michael and I are excited to welcome Alexandra Lange to the podcast. Alexandra, welcome. How are you today?
Alexandra Lange 13:11
I'm great. Thanks for having me.
Steve Dennis 13:14
Well, we're delighted to have you. I'm super excited to talk to about your great new book, Meet Me by the Fountain, but we'll get to that in a second. We usually like to just have people start off by telling us a little bit about themselves, a little about their personal and professional journey, if you wouldn't mind and then we'll, we'll dive into the book.
Alexandra Lange 13:32
Sure, I'm an architecture and design critic based in Brooklyn. I've written for a whole bunch of publications, I guess my main interest is really in how culture and public space come together. My previous book was called the design of childhood, how the material world shapes independent kids, and I talked a lot in that about schools and playgrounds and how they change children's worlds. So, now in the new book, I've kind of moved on up to malls.
Steve Dennis 14:04
A natural progression, perhaps I don't I don't know but so, typically, we've done I don't know about 80 episodes or something like that, Michael, I think and, -
Michael LeBlanc 14:13
Steve Dennis 14:14
For the most part, everybody we have on is somehow or other a retail person. That is not your background, obviously, which I think is a really interesting lens into, into the world of retail. So, so, tell us a little bit about your book and how, how you came to take that on as a topic?
Alexandra Lange 14:33
Sure. Well, first of all, it's a personal interest. I grew up in Durham, North Carolina, so I spent a lot of time in the mall in the 1980s and early 1990s. For me, it was a really important place when I was growing up the mall and I know that, that is an experience for a lot of kids who grew up in the 80s and 90s. So, I had that in the back of my mind and then around 2018, I read a news article about Renzo Piano, the Italian architect, designing a place called City Center Bishop Ranch in Northern California. And Piano talked about that as being a piazza and a retail experience. But I was looking at the plans for it and I was like, this is a mall. What, why is he designing a mall? And why aren't they calling it a mall. So, at that point, I kind of dove into research what had been happening in malls over the past 10 years. And I got really interested in both the original history of malls from the 1950s. And in what the mall industry was doing to try to recapture some of the glamour of that early period.
Michael LeBlanc 15:49
Let's start with the trade-, tradecraft for a while it's a big project. How did you, you know, the, the zeitgeist of the malls, where did you and how did you get your arms around what you were going to do? And then you know, for maybe the younger listeners, you know, how they became such an important place in the 80s. I mean, I remember how prominent they were in movies all the way up to that classic movie, The Dawn of the Dead, which was more of a speaking point about culture. But talk a little bit about both the tradecraft and then again, for, for folks who may not have grown up in the mall in this generation. Talk about their, their role and your perspective around them.
Alexandra Lange 16:27
Well, I am primarily a journalist and critic. And at the time, when I started this project, I was the architecture critic for the website Curbed. So, in that capacity, I wrote three or four articles about the mall, kind of pinging off little chunks of mall history that I thought were, were interesting. One was about malls in Manhattan. One was about City Center, Bishop Ranch, one was about the rise and fall of the pedestrian mall in cities.
Alexandra Lange 16:56
And after I'd written all of those pieces, and they've gotten a pretty big response from our audience, I thought, can I put these together into a book? What would a book about the mall really look like? And the pieces that I wrote kind of covered the present day and a little bit back to the 1970s. But I was already aware of the story of Victor Gruen, really the inventor of the indoor shopping mall, in the 1950s. So, I just felt like a chronological structure kind of from dawn to possible dusk of the mall made the most sense. But I knew I was going to have to do a hell of a lot of historical research in order to make that happen. Like I had really just carved up the easiest, most recent part of the history.
Michael LeBlanc 17:44
It's a deep, rich history and, and Steve and I were talking off mic that, you know, we both worked for mall based retailers. So, we've spent a fair bit of time thinking about malls, both personally and professionally. And, and we learned a lot just from, from the book. So, is that where you where you started that history. Now you mentioned Victor Gruen and who wa-, who was he? And what is the Gruen transfer all about?
Alexandra Lange 18:05
Well, that's great to hear, just first of all, from the perspective of people in retailing, that you didn't know this history. I mean, I'm always trying to kind of reveal to people that these things, these places that they visit every day actually have this deep, rich history. And there are lots of fascinating figures and we just kind of go about our business unawares a lot of the time.
Alexandra Lange 18:26
And Victor Gruen is definitely kind of the, the star of this show. I think he was an incredibly good salesman on top of everything else, that he was a Viennese emigre architect, he was Jewish, and he fled the Nazis and came to New York in 1938. And he was the one who really had the realization that the suburbs needed a place where people could, could come together, they needed a community space. And he realized that if you organized all of the disparate shops that were kind of strung out along the new highways that were being built into a more beautiful, more connected place, you could recapture some of the urban life that he remembered from growing up in Vienna. So, that was his idea about the mall,
Michael LeBlanc 19:14
Was, was he trying to ca-, recapture you know, the marketplaces are not new, they go back many, many centuries or 1000s of years, right. A gathering of merchants together, that forms around it and the community comes together, you know, farmers markets today is, is was that informing his, his vision? And, and I guess, how did we get away from that? How did we get into was it was infrastructure and highways that kind of start to spread out and, and then kind of decouple retail from, from the people in the communities that were in?
Alexandra Lange 19:45
He was absolutely thinking about marketplaces and more ancient forums, a lot of the mall histories that I read to inform my history referenced the ancient Greek agora, I actually chose not to do that because I thought, why do we always have to reference the Greeks, but, (crossover talk) maybe it was necessary. So, yes, there's definitely a long human history of gathering together in a central square in cities that has civic infrastructure and market infrastructure, often with food, and other things like that. And the mall is definitely is born out of that pattern. And I think born out of that human need for coming together.
Alexandra Lange 20:31
In terms of the, the sprawl of post-war development, that was kind of an intend-, unintended consequence. You know, in the post-war era, the government heavily subsidized the building of the new interstate system. And they also heavily subsidized mortgages for returning servicemen to buy single family homes. But those subsidies encouraged sprawl, and did not include monies for central gathering spaces, it was kind of like they expected (inaudible) to be in their cars, or they expected to the them to be in their houses.
Alexandra Lange 21:08
And I think it's part of Gruens genius to realize that, that really wouldn't do. like people would be incredibly unhappy if that was the only structure of their lives. And so, the mall becomes this brig-, bridge structure between the roads and the homes, and honestly gave the women and children that tended to be living in those suburban homes, a place to go during the day and meet their friends.
Steve Dennis 21:33
Yeah, it's really, I want to talk a little bit maybe about kind of the different phases of how malls have evolved over the past 50 or 60 years. But one of the things that we've touched on a few times on the podcast, which I often find, when I talk to younger people, they have a hard time getting their, their heads around is this idea that going to a mall could actually be convenient. You know that because you know, in this era of being able to shop online and having access to all sorts of different shopping alternatives in your neighborhood, this idea that a mall, could be convenient, but I think it gets back to what Gruen was trying to create this, this, this place of vast choice, community center, and even, you know, the Gruen transfer ideas. I understand part of that it's about getting lost in that space, right? You come there for one thing, and you end up staying for a whole bunch of other things. Do, do I have that basically right?
Alexandra Lange 22:30
Yeah, you do have that right. And I would say the, the, you know, 21st century online version of the grue-, Gruen transfer is probably the endless scroll, like you go online to look one thing up and suddenly 45 minutes later, you looked up 25 things. Yeah, the Gruen transfer, I mean, Gruens’ idea was partially about making errands more convenient. Here in one place you can pick up your dry cleaning, buy new shoes for your kid, have lunch with your friend, etcetera, etcetera, all these things in one place. But he also realized if you made that place, interesting and fun, people would want to stay longer, and then they would probably go into extra stores, and then they would spend their money. So, there's definitely a capitalist underpinning to the whole thing. But it also makes your errands a much more pleasant experience.
Steve Dennis 23:22
So, how would you say, you know, like, as Michael and I mentioned, or, or Michael mentioned about both of us having this history, working from all base department stores, way back when, you know, one of the things that I started to see, I guess, probably in the late 90s. You know, there was such growth in these category killers and discount mass merchants like Walmart and Target that started to pull traffic away from the mall. Did, did you see much in your, in your research? Did you see much of a change or a pivot to how the traditional regional mall started to change then, or, or how would you kind of think about the different phases over the years?
Alexandra Lange 24:03
There's definitely there's definitely a downturn in malls when the big box retailers start up, and it's really part of a long-, longer downward trend in the department store industry in general. If you look at a lot of the really successful malls today, they're the ones with the higher end department stores like Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, because the middle and lower end department stores are, are doing much worse and that whole part of the industry has really been hollowed out.
Alexandra Lange 24:38
And when I talked to some people that had been in department stores for a long time, they said that really there is this kind of bifurcated system now where the people that used to shop at you know, middle range department stores like Macy's or Dillards or Belks if you're in the South. We're now shopping at Target and Walmart whereas the high end was continuing to shop at, at Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom. This whole section of the industry, these middle class anchored department stores that serve many malls were just gone or not doing well. And that was really damaging to the whole industry.
Steve Dennis 25:18
Yeah, absolutely sounds like those people read my book, because that's what I say in my book.
Alexandra Lange 25:22
Well, that's good because as you know, business is not my background. So, I spent a lot of time trying to get up to speed on consolidation in the department store a-, industry consolidation in the mall industry and things like that, that are underlies some of the cultural patterns or you know, as, as a shopper, you see something happening, but you don't know what the reason is?
Steve Dennis 25:45
Sure. Well, what I think is so interesting about the book, I mean, I, I do think that, first of all, it's, you wouldn't necessarily know unless you stated it, that you didn't come from outside of retail, because there's such a rich series of stories and, and takes I think that's, that's super, super interesting. But, but I want to (inaudible) I just have a couple other questions, but I'm curious, just you know, so much of what you write about in the book deals with, though you have a chapter at the end that kind of gets into this deals with American malls, you know, sort of the American dream, both as a bigger concept, as well as literally a new, a new mall, any commentary about how malls play a different role if they do in the rest of the world?
Alexandra Lange 26:30
Yeah, my conclusion really talks about malls in Asia and South America and a little bit of an older history of malls in parts of Europe, particularly the United Kingdom. And yeah, I think the main, my main takeaway for malls in other countries is that they tend to be much more urban, they tend to be much more connected to public transportation. And they tend to include a lot more public services. So they're really fulfilling that community function that Gruen talked about at the beginning, but they're much less sprawl dependent.
Steve Dennis 27:05
Well, speaking of sprawl, one of the things I wanted to get your, your take on, you sort of touched on this a little bit earlier. But one of the things that I found, particularly the last few years, as I go to visit certain malls, you know, whether we're talking about Tysons Corner where I was not too long ago, you know, any, I guess any other sort of mega regional models is, my response to them today is (inaudible) I wanted to find them just comically large, like, so ridiculously huge, difficult to navigate, and, and very kind of antiseptic, and soulless. And I'm wondering, you know, particularly as an architecture critic, but as well as the way you've, you've studied the evolution of malls. You know, do, do you agree that they're sort of built for an era that no longer exists? Is there some hope, in your mind for some of these malls to actually be relevant in the future without dramatic change?
Alexandra Lange 28:05
Yeah, I think it's difficult because one of the interesting things about malls for an architecture critic is that they have been so constantly upgraded and constantly added on to that it's hard to find a historic mall. And that's the why, one of the reasons why I spend a lot of time in my second chapter on North Park in Dallas, because there you can actually see part of the mall that was built in 1965. And that is super rare in this day and age. And one of the things I like about North Park, and this is a commentary on a lot of the new malls is the materials that it's built with, it has polished concrete floors, and a very particular white brick and fountains. And a lot of more recent malls all look alike, and they all have this super slick marble floors, they're very white, very, like bright cold lighting. And I think that's what a lot of mall owners have done to refresh the look of their malls. Like we don't want it to look like the 90s anymore. No more, you know, tan tile, no more turquoise accents. But the result is that, to me, everything looks a little bit like an airport hotel nd there's really very little sense of place or difference in them.
Alexandra Lange 29:23
And, you know, I've, I've seen pictures of the Mall of America recently. And they've done that also to the Mall of America. And when the Mall of America opened in the early 90s There was one whole wing that was supposed to look like a theme park version of New Orleans. And that to me is so much more intriguing than like just another light, bright marble space. So, I think in trying to make themselves look new and upscale, they have kind of given away a lot of the character and charm that made,made them memorable.
Alexandra Lange 29:58
And, and I also think, think, there is, yet there's sort of is a square footage, and I'm not sure I could put a number on this at which a mall just becomes unmanageable. And like I, at the beginning of the book, I talk about my visit to American Dream in northern New Jersey, which is this 3 mil-, million square foot mall that took you know, 17 years to build. And it just opened and it already feels unmanageable, like it doesn't have any sort of structure.
Alexandra Lange 30:28
And the earlier models that I talk about from the 60s and 70s, had these very clear plans that I described as looking at like letters, you know, an L-shaped plan or a V-shaped plan or an E-shaped plan. So, you sort of knew where you were inside the mall. But these new ones are just these blobs that seemed to go on forever. And if all the flooring looks the same, you don't know when you've gotten from Sector A to Sector C.
Steve Dennis 30:54
So, you, you mentioned American Dream, I'm just curious, maybe for a, a quick commentary, because I think, you know, one of the other big high profile malls that's that opened in the last two years, and I think landed with a big thud was Hudson Yards. (crossover talk), do you have any commentary on, on that? Because I think a lot of people even though, obviously, many people that listen to this haven't necessarily been there. But that was such a high profile project that got so much publicity, any, any commentary on what went right, what went wrong in that particular development?
Alexandra Lange 31:22
Yeah, that Hudson Yards is actually one of the malls that I wrote about before I even started writing my book, because I live in Brooklyn. And it was kind of the biggest architecture story in New York at that time. I feel like when I describe, you know, many of the good things about Asian malls to people, that they are more vertical, that they're located over public transportation, that they have, you know, a wide variety of shops and are an oasis in the city. That sounds like what Hudson Yards was supposed to be. But I just think from a design point of view, it really failed. I'd say primarily because it doesn't really have a central space, and it doesn't have a food court adjacent to a central space that kind of gives it its life. So, every time I've gone there, I felt kind of lost. And I feel like there's no where to meet. It has those super slick materials, you know, marble, glass railings, stainless steel. And it just, it doesn't feel like something that is unique to New York, or even kind of unique within the world of malls. And I feel like if you're going to build a vertical mall in New York, it really has to have some flair and flavor.
Michael LeBlanc 32:41
It's so interesting. I mean, and there's so much to talk about in terms of the future as well. Let's talk about the future. I mean, let's talk about the post-COVID world there's less people working in offices and a lot of these malls are based on commuters. I'm thinking of one close to you, the Westfield World Trade Center, you know, the one that's at the Oculus, pretty cool looking, cool looking mall, not too far from, from, Hudson Yards. We were talking off mic about the Eaton Center, and in Toronto here, which relies really heavily on commuters. And what do you see next for malls? I mean, I, I we hear often the live, work, play, shop. I mean, I guess that was the broader vision beyond Hudson Yards. But what, what are you thinking of and what are your, you know, what's next for malls in your view?
Alexandra Lange 33:22
Yeah, I mean, I think there's a real difference between urban malls and suburban malls and their trajectory. The Oculus at the World Trade Center has never really done well. And I think it suffers from some of the same spatial issues as Hudson Yards. But on the other hand, the Winter Garden at Brookfield Place, which is basically just across the West Side Highway, which has this huge food court, as well as a bunch of high end shops is still really highly trafficked. I went there for lunch a few weeks ago, because people are back in the office buildings around it, as well as it being connected to Battery Park City, which is a huge residential area. And that's doing just fine. So, I think that is a better design space to start with. And then it kind of it repositioned itself with the food court very well for you know, what I think is going to be a major driver for malls of the future, which is just more food, more different kinds of food, more interesting food options, like the, the food court is going to go from being you know, like one quarter of the space around the atrium to going all the way around the atrium, (crossover talk),
Michael LeBlanc 34:34
I see I see lots of landlords calling them districts right, even in that the one you're referring to Brookfield Place I think they call it Le District and here we have you know these more bespoke not even, if you even call them food court is a bit misleading, right?
Alexandra Lange 34:48
What I found was that mall people you know, people in the business are always trying to rebrand everything right? So, they don't want to call it a food court because food court makes people think of Orange Julius and teenagers and you know, kind of (inaudible) grimy orange tables or whatever. But I mean it is it is a food court, you can call it something different. But it's better because honestly, I think people in general expect better food nowadays. So, I know of mall redevelopment projects, where in the old department store space, they're doing one of these districts or food halls where it's a combination of, you know, kiosks, eat-in restaurants, and then places where you can get kind of gourmet groceries to take home like a mini Whole Foods.
Michael LeBlanc 34:50
Sure, like a like a good like a good fishmonger, or a good butcher kind of thing a mix, a mix of both, right? So, a place to go not just to, you know, for folks in the neighborhood to go and stop in on the way home, right, that's, do you see that, do you see that happening more often?
Alexandra Lange 35:52
Definitely and I think that's also a good example of a business that would serve both commuters and people who are maybe working from home and you know, need to meet someone for lunch or need a reason to go out during the day because they don't want to be stuck in their house 24/7. So, it's pretty flexible in terms of who's going to use it and what hours they're going to use it.
Michael LeBlanc 36:18
Right on. Well, our guest is Alexandra Lange the book is, Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall, a highly recommend, highly recommend available now at your favorite bookstores. Alexandra, thanks so much for joining us on Remarkable Retailer. It was a great discussion an a great book and congratulations. As, as Steve said, you, you know, it took me a little bit by surprise your your insights are so rich and, and deep in and around retail, but you don't come from a retail background. So, it's really interesting how different disciplines can inform retail. So, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast.
Alexandra Lange 36:52
Thanks for having me and all the great questions.
Michael LeBlanc 36:56
If you liked what you heard, please follow us on Apple, Spotify, your favorite podcast platform so you can catch up with all our great interviews, like our discussion with Seth Godin on what retailers can actually do to fight climate change. New episodes of season five presented by MarketDial will show up each and every week. And be sure to tell your friends and colleagues in the retail industry, all about us.
Steve Dennis 37:15
And I'm Steve Dennis, author of the best-selling book, ‘Remarkable Retail: How to Win & Keep Customers in the Age of Disruption’. You can learn more about me my consulting and keynote speaking at stevenpdennis.com.
Michael LeBlanc 37:15
And I'm Michael LeBlanc, consumer retail growth consultant, keynote speaker and producer and host of a series of retail trade podcasts including this one. Plus the host of the popular YouTube cooking show Last Request Barbecue. You can learn even more about me on LinkedIn or an meleblanc.co.
Safe travels everyone.
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