Shopping malls, which once played a central role in young people’s social lives, have been declining in popularity for decades, even after seeing a resurgence post-pandemic. In the face of this rapid shift in consumer values and behavior, in-store retail shopping insights became essential to understanding the evolving needs and desires of consumers seeking meaningful in-person experiences. Yale Center for Customer Insights researchers wanted to understand the forces driving malls’ declining popularity and identify strategies for malls to make themselves relevant for a new generation of shoppers.
In order to gain a deeper understanding of the mindset shift driving young shoppers away from traditional shopping malls, the YCCI team conducted almost two dozen in-depth interviews, exploring the psychological beliefs and goals guiding decisions about where young consumers want to shop and the role retail shopping centers play in their lives.
'Malls' Are Stale, but 'Shoppes’ and ‘Town Centers' Aren’t
According to the YCCI researchers, just using the word “mall” to describe shopping centers might be part of the problem.
Most shoppers interviewed by the YCCI team expressed a negative association with the word “mall” and seemed unenthusiastic about the idea of spending time hanging out in malls. However, when the researchers asked these participants where they would rather spend time, many people described mall-like places. One "anti-mall" interviewee who described malls as 'stale and outdated' told the research team that she enjoyed going to places with retail stores and fun food halls on weekends. "Which, in essence, is a mall," the authors write.
It became apparent that the word ‘mall’ is now strongly associated with consumerism and superficial shopping, which is why they have become unpopular among younger shoppers.
In fact, when the researchers replaced the word “mall” from with other descriptors such as “town center,” “market,” or “shoppes,” shoppers expressed more openness to visiting.
Non-retail options—fun experiences and activities—were also found to be major drivers of mall visits for Gen Zs and Millennials consumers. In follow-up testing on an online panel of younger consumers, the YCCI researchers found that highlighting these more experiential elements, including dining and gaming options, in messaging increase intent to visit malls.
A Sense of Community
Despite the uncool connotation, some interviewees revealed a positive aspect that malls provided them with a sense of community. One shopper mentioned that she especially enjoyed 'people watching' in the malls. Participants also described malls a 'happy environment,' where one rarely sees angry or upset people. "Most people are happy when buying things in the moment.”
According to the researchers, connecting with shoppers’ desire for connection is key to winning over younger demographics. Malls should position themselves as a place for bonding with friends and families, rather than being portrayed as an individualistic experience. For many young shoppers, malls have been a backdrop for many coming-of-age moments, including ear-piercing or purchasing outfits for special moments, experiences that are cherished for a lifetime. Messaging around these bonding moments might make younger shoppers seeking a renewed feeling of connection and be more open to revisiting.
For some shoppers, being seen at the mall is a key source of motivation, and can inspire feelings of confidence, especially when they are seen carrying bags from fashionable retailers. One interviewee described the elated feeling he gets walking around the mall with his hands full of shopping bags: “When I’m the one holding all the bags, I’m not gonna lie. It does boost my confidence.” The researchers tested this idea on an online panel of shoppers and found that messaging that highlights the glow of carrying “armful of bags” drove interest in visiting.
When I'm the one holding all the bags, I'm not gonna lie. It does boost my confidence.
Instant Gratification Online Shopping Can’t Provide
No matter how easy it has become to shop virtually, the authors say that in-person shopping experiences provide instant gratification, which online shopping cannot. Mall messaging should tap into this particular insight to enhance their appeal with younger consumers, obsessed with immediacy. "The excitement around feeling instant gratification, much like having anticipated the expected immediate rush of endorphins, in addition to the actual feeling of satisfaction, is found to be incredibly activating," researchers write.