Teens of the '80s may recall shiny new shopping malls as the hot place for hanging out, their food courts the cafe society of adolescence. These chain-store palaces knocked off local mom and pop retailers one by one, turning their downtown habitat into drab places for the poor and dysfunctional.
Now online commerce is knocking off the malls, but guess what. Not only is downtown retail coming back but also the stores are proving themselves to be among the fittest of the bricks-and-mortar survivors.
Wausau, Wisconsin, for example, has not one vacant storefront in the entire downtown shopping area. The Wall Street Journal singled out Wausau as an important case study because it is America's most middle-class city. People there spend 30 percent more than the national average. Sales tax collections in the county are up 20 percent since 2011.
So wallets in Wausau are definitely open. But stores are fleeing the Wausau Center, a local mall at the city's edge. The mall's owner walked away as his tenants — Sears, J.C. Penney, Payless ShoeSource and such — closed their doors. (Dying malls are especially numerous in the rural Midwest, where distances to them make the trips even less appealing.)
What's happening? Like consumers everywhere, the people of Wausau now do a lot of their shopping online. And they will make pilgrimages to warehouse stores — Costco and Sam's Club — for their two dozen rolls of paper towels. But they also are likelier to patronize smaller stores offering unusual items, personal attention and proximity to other downtown excitement.
The venerable Janke Book Store in Wausau is apparently doing very well, as are other independent bookstores. The number of independent bookstores nationally has jumped by over 30 percent since 2009, according to the American Booksellers Association.
Books are the easiest thing to buy online, but these intimate stores provide the added value of local authors, games, greeting cards and recommendations. And however speedily Amazon can whisk a book to my front door, only the bookstore offers instant gratification.
Successful bookstores make the most of their reputations as "third places," places to go other than home or work. They provide community in the form of book readings, and the ones for children are often jammed.
I prefer real stores for my clothes, and not because I haven't tried buying them online. What happens online is that the item idealized in the photo doesn't resemble what comes in the box. What size to order is anybody's guess.
I know, I know. Things can be returned, but that requires taking additional steps. So when an item arrives that's just a bit off, I keep it, figuring a return is not worth the hassle. In the end, I'm stuck with something that I would not have bought at a store.
Downtown retailers know to display merchandise you can't get clicking on Amazon. And there's another category — things you never knew existed but that, once eyed, become absolute, positive must-haves.
What will the retailing future bring? Drones dropping sets of barbecue utensils on the back deck? Three-D gadgets taking your measurement? Robots programmed to assess one's mood and have access to a databank of past purchases? Not exactly "The Shop Around the Corner."
I recall watching one of the "Home Alone" movies years ago at a multiplex in some cavernous mall. There's this scene where little Kevin McAllister finds magic in the window of an old-fashioned toy store nested in a downtown streetscape. Here was a dream version of Main Street America, not unlike the real one that stood largely abandoned a few miles away.
They've tried to kill Main Street, but no luck yet.