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Shopping Malls: A Retail and Social Experience

Writer says Amazon offers one-stop shopping, but no human interaction

By Dianne Ribecca
The Tube City Almanac
April 06, 2021
Posted in: Commentary-Editorial

Opinions expressed in editorials and commentaries are those of their authors, and are not those of Tube City Community Media Inc., its board of directors, volunteers, contributors or donors. Responsible replies are welcome.

Eastland Mall in North Versailles Twp., located on a hill overlooking McKeesport and Duquesne, was demolished more than a decade ago. The mall is rumored to become the site of a new Amazon.com distribution center. (Photo by Jacob via Flickr, used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

More than a decade after the demolition of Eastland Mall in North Versailles Twp., a developer is planning to build a distribution center on the property, reportedly for Amazon.com.

Most people in this area can probably remember Eastland Mall, which closed permanently in 2005. When the mall first opened in 1963, its major tenants were department stores such as Gimbels and J.C. Penney Co.

Some might even remember that the North Versailles Library was in that mall. I recall regularly going to the library with my mother and sister to pick out books.

Unfortunately, with the demise of that mall, memories, jobs and businesses left the township.

Mark Belko noted recently in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Eastland fell on hard times with the demise of the steel industry and competition from malls like Monroeville and Century III in West Mifflin.”

Once the third-largest enclosed shopping center in the world, Century III Mall itself fell on hard times, and closed in 2019.

Since its founding in 1994, Amazon.com has grown from a website selling books and music to a one-stop shopping experience selling practically everything. (It’s also one of the world’s largest technology companies providing web streaming video and audio, cloud computing, artificial intelligence processing, and more.)

An Amazon distribution center in North Versailles would thankfully will bring jobs and businesses back to the old Eastland Mall site — but no social experiences.

Once the third-largest enclosed shopping mall in the world, Century III Mall in West Mifflin closed in 2019. (Photo by Jacob via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.)

What can you do in malls that you can't do on Amazon.com? For one thing, while you were picking up needed items, you could also stop in the salon for a haircutting appointment or enjoy a slice of pizza in the food court.

Shopping malls created a social experience for family and friends that online shopping cannot. The social experience of browsing for something new and exciting or sharing a meal at the food court was the thing to do for teenagers and adults alike. Walking the mall for exercise is another social experience for adults, especially older ones.

Traditional department stores like Macy’s, J.C. Penney and Sears were the anchors for much of the square footage of shopping malls. But because of the declining consumer interest in department stores, malls are having to look for other ways to keep their doors open.

Since I’m from the Mon Valley, I take a high interest in the malls in this area, but malls all over the United States are experiencing the same transition.

In the Tribune-Review, Megan Tomasic recently reported that Westmoreland Mall in Hempfield Twp. has had 13 store closures over the past few years. That was before the COVID-19 pandemic hurt retail shopping further.

The closures included major department stores such as Sears and Bon-Ton. A mini-casino has been built where Bon-Ton used to be.

Pittsburgh Mills Mall in Frazer Twp., north of the city, took a hit when a Cinemark theatre closed recently.

Philip Pelusi, an upscale Pittsburgh-based hair salo,  left the mall in 2019, along with Petland. The mall is reportedly trying to find another entertainment-related tenant just to keep its doors open.

The COVID-19 pandemic is creating even more devastation in the shopping mall industry.

In November 2020, Bloomberg News reported that the owner of Westmoreland Mall and Monroeville Mall, CBL & Associates Properties Inc., was filing for bankruptcy.

According to Bloomberg, “The pandemic worsened an already dire situation for brick-and-mortar retailers, with a steady stream of chains falling victim as their customers shifted to online shopping. J.C. Penney Co., J. Crew Group and the owner of Ann Taylor are among the dozens of chains that have sought court protection since COVID-19 lockdowns throttled in-store shopping this year.”

As the stores fell away, owners of malls began Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganizations. Bankruptcy doesn’t always mean a business is closing for good. Bankruptcy protection, in this case, is giving mall owners time to work on turning their businesses around and repay their creditors.

Writing in the Tribune-Review, Tomasic found some reason to be optimistic about the future of shopping malls. She quoted Deborah Good, a business professor at the University of Pittsburgh, as saying that businesses will rebound as shoppers venture out again — but, Good told her, the resurgence will probably only be temporarily, lasting three months or so.

Afterward, Good predicted, local malls will be back to where many of them were months ago before the pandemic.

Among local facilities, Westmoreland Mall is likely to recover because of its focus on entertainment tenants such as the mini-casino, and Monroeville Mall's movie theatre will probably remain a draw.

And north of Pittsburgh, Ross Park Mall has a mix of high-end retailers such as Nordstrom, Coach and Burberry not found elsewhere in our region. That will keep the social experience of shopping alive there for a while.

Dianne Ribecca is a member of the board of directors of Tube City Community Media Inc. and hosts the “Consumer Review Report,” a talk show heard at 4 p.m. Sundays on Tube City Online Radio and available as a free podcast.

Tube City Community Media is committed to printing viewpoints from residents of the McKeesport area and surrounding municipalities. Commentaries are accepted at the discretion of the editor and may be edited for content or length.

To submit a commentary for consideration, please write to Tube City Online, 409 Walnut St., Suite 200, McKeesport, PA 15134, or email tubecitytiger at gmail dot com. Include contact information and your real name. A pen name may be substituted with approval of the editor.

Originally published April 06, 2021.

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