It’s a mall world after all

Shopping malls are still a hangout for those on the outskirts of retail

Pat and Stan Ramer making the rounds on their morning walk around the mall.

Pat and Stan Ramer making the rounds on their morning walk around the mall.

Photo/Josie Luciano

Column note

For a brief period of time in the late '80s and early '90s, my sister and I were a small part of the mall-walking scene at Northbrook Court in the Chicago suburbs.

We would wake up at 6 a.m., catch a ride in our grandparents' Buick Roadmaster, and roll with the 70-and-over crowd until we were covered in sweat or the retail shops opened or both. It was good exercise and family time, but—more importantly to our 7- and 10-year-old selves—it was a glimpse into the mythical place where kids just a little bit older than us would go to hang out.

These days, the sheen of the shopping mall has dulled considerably, but you can still find mall walkers, and a few mallrats, if you know where to look. Or when to look.

On the fringe

Pat and Stan Ramer arrive at Meadowood Mall at 7 a.m. each morning. It’s a tradition that the couple has observed for the last 10 years since they retired and moved to Reno from San Rafael, California. Now in their early 70s, the Ramers consider mall walking an antidote to boredom.

“I don’t want to be in the house all day—you need to be able to get out and do something different,” said [Pat] Ramer. “I like the fact that it’s warm, it’s safe, there’s restrooms, and, as you’re walking, you see the same people, and you develop a rapport with them.”

Then there’s the fitness upside. Anyone who has ever blown out their joints playing team sports, running, or simply does not have $50 a month to fork over for a gym membership knows that there are limited options for self-directed exercise. Home fitness. Biking. Walking outside. All are good choices some of the time for some of the people.

But mall walking anywhere is like mall walking everywhere, which is kind of the point. It’s got everyone covered. Even when it’s 20 degrees outside, malls are temperature controlled, have even surfaces, and are great places for active seniors to go hard during their workout without going too hard on their bodies.

As a former RN, Ramer is well-acquainted with the many health benefits of walking.

“It’s good for the heart. It helps you with your weight, and if you’re a person that tends to get depression, it can help you with that. It’s good for the endorphins in the brain.”

According to the American Heart Association, walking is just as effective as running in lowering your risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. More importantly, it counteracts the effects of sitting. In a recent report from the British Journal of Sports Medicine, studies show that the average American spends 9-10 hours sitting each day—a statistic that ups your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer by a whopping 90 percent.

Staying fit is the number one reason mall walkers give for their early morning habit. And while some walkers have been getting their cardio in the mall for years, others have just begun.

“We’ve been doing this for probably about five months now,” said Elizabeth Purtee, a Reno resident and mall-walking newcomer (who also happens to be this year’s Miss Senior Northern Nevada).

“We always thought we would be in that ’old fogey’ category if we really resorted to mall walking.”

Though Purtee and her mall-walking partner have only been coming to Meadowood Mall for several months, the two women have been friends since their Wooster High School days and still consider themselves on the younger end of the mall-walking spectrum.

“There are young-old, there are medium-old, and there are old-old,” said Purtee. “And we consider ourselves the young-old. We’re both over 60.”

And then there’s the young-young.

Like Purtee and her walking companion, high school students Ethan Paradis and Mason Dunn also like to hang out at the mall—just not so early in the morning.

“Usually I walk around, and I try to find people that I know and say hello,” said Paradis.

For Dunn, the mall has the advantage of being “a place everyone knows” which is useful for arranging gatherings of friends.

Clean cut and missing the 100-yard-glare of the mallrats of my youth, Paradis and Dunn could pass for shoppers. Still, they usually draw the line at making a purchase.

“It’s very rare that I actually buy something,” said Paradis. “I just come here to socialize. … A lot of people come here day in and day out. I think it’s just fun to see different people here, say hello. Hang out.”

Commercial free

Perhaps the most unexpected supporter of non-paying visitors to the mall is the mall itself.

“I think it’s just good PR,” said Jeannie McAllister, jewelry consultant at Zales Diamonds and 20-year employee at Meadowood Mall. “[The walkers] are here early in the morning, and while they’re walking around, they’re window shopping.”

McAllister also understands the appeal of the mall as a safe space for youth. “I used to hang out in the mall when I was a teenager. I think it’s kind of a meeting place for them. It’s a social thing.”

Meadowood Mall Director of Marketing Jeannine Lahr Hall, also has a take on the presence of visitors who don’t necessarily feed the bottom line.

“We don’t expect everyone to shop, but it’s nice when they do, of course,” said Lahr Hall. “[It’s about] being able to provide a memorable experience where if they want to come back and get something they can. They’ll be walking and see, ’Oh there’s a sale here at this store,’ or ’I know I need to go to See’s Candy to get a gift,’ or ’Macy’s is having a big sale’—whatever it is.”

Good publicity is something shopping centers should not take for granted. Since my Northbrook Court days, malls have risen in popularity, peaked, and remain in steady decline with some 15 percent of malls predicted to close over the next 10 years—that’s adjusted from the 10 percent failure rate forecast in 2012 by real estate research firm Green Street Advisors. Though Simon-owned properties, like Meadowood, are considered to be industry leaders, the company only managed to post flat mall-traffic rates in last week’s earnings report.

According to the Green Street Advisors’ 2015 U.S. Mall Outlook, the biggest risks to mall solvency are “e-Commerce” and something called “anchor obsolescence” (the circumstance where waning anchor stores like Sears and J.C. Penny drag down, rather than carry, the malls they occupy). The threat is creeping, but it is real.

The good news for malls? Retail is still on our minds. From Kevin Smith’s confirmation that Mallrats 2 is in the works, to Donald Trump’s escalator-ride-turned-presidential-announcement, to a recent TimeTrade finding that an overwhelming majority of consumers still enjoy the experience of physically “going shopping”—it seems like people are ready to feel nostalgic about malls at the very least.

No, at the very least they can show up, hang out, and walk. That’s something we can count on every day of the year.