“This town becoming like a ghost town. All the shops have been closed down”. Never a truer word spoken. Admittedly The Specials were singing about the urban decay of late 1970’s Coventry, but they could well have been singing about just about every town in the world right now.
My town is no different from most, and the effects of the shutdown are very apparent. Being the second largest town in the county, as well as the most accessible, we have more than our share of retail outlets, including a mall. Usually, it’s a fairly busy place, not least because of the presence of a branch of a well known big box store. The Mall in particular has taken a very heavy hit, one which may well be fatal.
Over the past few years, the mall has been in a slow, steady decline. About five years ago, all the units were occupied, the anchor stores were doing well and parking, particularly around the holidays, could be a challenge. I know that some of this decline is the result of online shopping, but even so, since that time, the mall has declined substantially. I was in J.C. Penney a couple of winters ago to buy some gloves and it was a truly depressing experience: there were more staff than customers present, and there were precious few staff. It comes as no surprise to me that they’ve just filed for bankruptcy. Likewise the death of Kohl’s and Pier One will have shocked no one. I’m also concerned that a lot of Mom and Pop businesses will simply never reopen, with the loss of character and diversity that makes many small towns enjoyable places to live and shop.
I wouldn’t be surprised if quite a few fine dining establishments remain shuttered, as their fare is less suited to delivery than say, pizza, which is also a darn sight cheaper.
The malls’ death by inches has affected other stores as well. The road that runs around the edge of the mall used to have several well patronised stores, but the only ones left are the discount furniture store and the liquor store. No big surprise there.
Having said all this, the lockdown may well be a fatal blow to many businesses that were just about surviving. No one is buying anything other than food and essential household products, so even on a Saturday there is very little traffic through town. It makes me wonder just how many (how few?) stores will return once things return to what will count as normal. Are we, in fact, seeing the death spasms of bricks and mortar retail? Maybe. I will admit that apart from food, I do most of my shopping online. Books, video games, etc. are much more easily found via a screen than roaming a store. I do appreciate the convenience that online shopping provides and have to square the circle of knowing just how shittily warehouse pickers are treated. Not to mention any names, of course, lest I be sued by a certain third rate Bond villain lookalike.
I wonder, also, just what will happen to the civic life of towns after the pandemic is over. I remember reading Jane Jacobs’ “Death and Life of Great American Cities” and her belief that for a city to be vibrant it needed retail, entertainment, etc. to be spread out in order to encourage travel to different areas and maintain a level of social interaction. I realise that we drive to most places nowadays, but what of the coffee shops, etc. that depend on passing trade, the shoppers who stop off for a latte on their way to or from the store, the pizza parlours likewise? I realise malls act as hubs, rather than rims, but even so, the mall may be just one stop during the day, even though it allegedly offers all things to all people.
It really is creepy to drive past, or through empty parking lots on a Saturday. It’s almost like a scene from the first or second episode of a post apocalyptic mini series, but at least they have a limited run, while our current situation seems to be well on the way to a second season. I will admit that I’m thoroughly sick of the whole situation and just want to go back to normal. The situation isn’t helped by the fact that even now, I see lots of people not wearing gloves or masks, WHICH ISN’T HELPING, PEOPLE! On occasion I have to go to my local Target as it’s convenient, more than anything else. I’ve seen whole families, no one taking precautions, wandering around the store, giving people in masks funny looks as if taking steps to avoid a deadly disease is weird.
I despair of people sometimes. Well, more than sometimes, if I’m being honest, and I don’t want to go off on a rant about political affiliation and belief in science, so I’ll leave it there. I just don’t see how the retail industry bounces back from this one, I really don’t. I don’t have any solutions, or snappy sign off, but I think that we are going to have to rethink how retail operates and I’m not confident that those stores that survive will necessarily be the ones that add colour and vibrancy to our lives.