Opinion

Alex Beam

Shopping the Two Americas

Empty metal shopping basket on wheels with yellow handle isolated on white background, consumer basket, food cart, back closeup view
Adobe/Stock

SARASOTA, FLA.

In June of last year, The Wall Street Journal asked: “Has America Built Its Last Major Mall?” The newspaper opined that the massive University Town Center Mall here “could be the last of its kind.”

Mall death isn’t fake news. There have been only three super-regional malls, including the one in Sarasota, built in the United States in the past eight years. (Mall developer GGP is currently building one in Norwalk, Conn.) There are now about 1,200 malls in the country, and only half of them are expected to survive the next few years.

I’ve long been a member of the Facebook group Dead Mall Enthusiasts, which posts pictures of acres of buckled concrete and unoccupied buildings where retail giants such as Toys ‘R’ Us and Kmart once ruled the retail roost. Probable causes of death? Online shopping, the Walmart-ization of America, and malls’ unique, soul-sucking anomie lampooned by “Saturday Night Live” in its “At the Mall” sketches in 1978, culminating with Kevin James’s lifeless “Mall Cop” movies.

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I visited the University Town Center Mall twice this month. The developers — Michigan-based Taubman Centers and a local partner — have paved over vast swaths of Florida flatlands just east of thriving Sarasota. The two-story shopping arcade is part of a faux-village layout that includes Fidelity and Charles Schwab investment centers, a variety of restaurants, and so on.

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The mall is tastefully appointed, and deliberately uninviting to mall rats. For instance, there is no food court filled with junk food purveyors. Swank tenants include Saks Fifth Avenue and a Tesla dealership, alongside such mall staples as Crate & Barrel, Macy’s, and Gap Kids.

How are they doing? On a Monday, the place was bare. When I returned on Saturday, there was more action. The Apple store, the company’s only high-traffic location south of Tampa, is thriving. Sales were ubiquitous: fashion retailers Ann Taylor and Charlotte Russe were offering 40 and 70 percent off, respectively. The few retailers I chatted with waxed bearish about their fate. As one man in a lightly trafficked shoe store explained, “This is why they aren’t building malls in America anymore.”

According to a Taubman spokesperson, “The Mall at University Town Center is a successful development by any benchmark, including productivity, merchandising and occupancy.”

You know who’s building stores in America? Dollar Tree and Dollar General Stores, which are sprouting like mushrooms in Florida, Massachusetts, and everywhere else. Dollar General, which sells cheap stuff cheaply, is opening 900 new stores this year — for the second year in a row. Rival Dollar Tree is opening 600 new stores annually, aiming for a target of 26,000.

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Why? Because America is generating poor people so fast, the dollar stores can’t keep up. The “middle class continues to go away, unfortunately, to the lower end of the economic scale vs. the higher end,” Dollar General CEO Todd Vasos explained to a retailing conference last year. “So as this economy continues to chug along and creates more of our core customer, there’s going to be more and more opportunities for us to get in and build more stores.”

I couldn’t find anything to buy at the glitzoid UTC mall, but I did purchase a pair of sandals, for one dollar, at a Dollar Tree not too far away. The flip-flops fell apart after a few days, proving once again that you get what you pay for. Alas, sometimes that is all you can afford.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.