Framingham near Boston forms part of the Golden Triangle, so called because of the bustling level of commercial activity to which it plays host.
Much of this is retail related, with a vast selection of shops available to suit all tastes and budgets.
Framingham’s rise to retail prominence started in the early 1950s when one of the first American shopping centers – Shopper’s World – opened on the outskirts of the town. At the time its claim to fame was that it had two levels, something then unheard of in shopping centre development.
The rise and fall of the mall
While Framingham was an early pioneer, it did not take long for other towns to catch on. Fuelled by rising affluence, greater car ownership, and a desire for convenience and speed, shopping centres started popping up across the United States. By the mid-1960s there were almost 8,000 of them.
“Suddenly the mall, that iconic place where generations of American teenagers went to hang out, started to fall out of favour”
Despite Framingham’s exotic two-level development, early shopping centres were relatively basic, often resembling strip-type configurations along which were strung a number of different retailers. The advent of the 1970s changed that, with the first big suburban malls appearing – a format that thrived in the US economic boom of the 1980s with more than 15,500 malls built during the decade.
Although the development of new shopping malls slowed during the early part of the 1990s, they remained the destination of choice for many consumers. In 1997 retail sales made via malls topped $1 trillion for the first time in history.
The advent of a new millennium brought with it a marked change in technology and consumer behaviour. Suddenly the mall, that iconic place where generations of American teenagers went to hang out, started to fall out of favour. The number of monthly visits dropped off sharply, as did spend.
As sales densities dropped some malls became unviable. Anchor stores were the first to suffer, their large footprints no longer justified by a dwindling volume of trade. The vicious cycle of the demise of the American mall had begun.
Online – the new rival
The arch villain of the mall was online retail. Yet as much as the internet’s culpability is obvious it raises a question as to why American malls were hit so hard and suffered in a way that malls in other countries did not.
The answer to that question is one of geography. American malls originally grew because putting together a large selection of retailers in one place helped to draw in customers from miles around: from all the small and more rural locations that could not support big retailers or big retail developments.
The internet undercut that dynamic. Suddenly travelling 50, 60, or even 70 miles to the mall became an unnecessary chore when a whole array of different products could be easily ordered from home. If getting to the mall had been easier and quicker – as it was in other countries with less vast geographies – then they may have remained somewhat more popular.
The mall fights back
“Outlet centres have thrived, offering customers an experience based on the thrill of finding a discounted bargain”
Despite the present challenges the tale of the American mall is not over. There are certainly now fewer of them than before, and further decline and further closures are inevitable. However, recent years have seen a revival for certain centres and types of development.
Outlet centres have thrived, offering customers an experience based on the thrill of finding a discounted bargain among a constantly changing assortment of goods. Meanwhile, larger malls with a strong mix of leisure and entertainment have also seen sales increase.
Fortunately, Framingham and the surrounding area have moved with the times. The Natick Mall offers a higher end experience, and the popular Wrentham Village Premium Outlets is a 30-minute drive to the south.
The original Shopper’s World has long since gone, having been demolished in 1994. However, a modern version, with the same name, still exists.
With its more basic retail mix of retailers it no longer pulls in trade like it once did. But it is now attuned and configured to serve the needs of locals. In so doing it is an example of how even the oldest of retail malls can survive if it evolves in line with the changing needs of consumers.