- Americans getting vaccinated in bankrupt, empty malls paint a grim picture for life after COVID-19.
- Retail vacancy rates are at a 7-year high after decades of closures due to the rise of e-commerce.
- Brands are bailing out failing US policies, from healthcare to infrastructure — and it’s only going to get worse.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
As vaccines roll out across American, thousands of people aren’t getting vaccinated at CVS pharmacies or local health clinics. Instead, they’re heading to abandoned Kmarts, Sears, and Toys R Us stores to get their shots.
For American companies that have seen store counts collapse in recent years, the symbolism of having abandoned stores turned into mass vaccination clinics highlights how quickly the world was changing before the pandemic, and how COVID-19 accelerated a shift to an unfamiliar and sometimes dystopian future.
The end of the COVID-19 pandemic might be in sight as vaccine shots ramp up, but crumbling malls, the country’s haphazard approach to healthcare, and brands looking to capitalize on the “new normal” suggest our new dystopian reality is here to stay.
American malls are dying a slow and painful death
The last decade has seen American cultural touchstones disintegrate as part of the retail apocalypse.
Companies like Sears and JCPenney spent over 100 years building their brands into household names — but it took only 10 years for an apocalypse to sweep through the retail industry, leaving vacant stores and dead malls in its wake.
The demise, like so much in the last decade, can be linked to the financial crisis: After the housing bubble burst in the late aughts, many retailers were never quite able to get back on their feet. Hundreds of thousands of employees were out of work, and private equity stepped in, burdening mall brands with massive amounts of debt.
The American mall began to face “a death spiral,” John M. Clapp, a professor at the University of Connecticut’s Center for Real Estate, told Insider in 2017.
“Once a department store goes vacant that tends to be contagious because all those middle-mall stores — the nail salons and the jewelry stores — they are all depending on the traffic coming from the bigger retail stores,” he said.
A report from Coresight Research cited by CNBC last August estimated that out of roughly 1,000 American malls, a quarter will close down in the next three to five years.
And, of course, it’s impossible to ignore the Amazon effect: The Seattle bookseller sparked an e-commerce boom, leading to a race to the top for Amazon and its main competition, Walmart, and opening the direct-to-consumer floodgates. Companies like Glossier, Allbirds, and Casper led the way, eschewing a traditional retail experience in favor of online-only shopping. (Of course, all of those brands eventually opened retail experiences of their own.)
In what is perhaps the cruelest twist of irony, Amazon reportedly held talks with Simon Property Group, the biggest mall-owner in the US, to discuss converting empty retail space into fulfillment centers that pack and ship Amazon orders.
The pandemic has only made matters worse. Retail vacancy rates are nearing a seven-year high, after major chains announced closures of more than…