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What are Shopping Centers?

By C. Ausbrooks
Updated Feb 24, 2024
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Shopping centers are buildings that contain multiple retail stores. The term generally applies to open-air complexes containing many buildings that adjoin pedestrian walkways. Enclosed shopping centers, in which all units are accessible under a single roof, are referred to as shopping malls. In the United Kingdom, they are known as retail parks or precincts.

The first shopping centers were the covered outdoor bazaars of ancient Europe. After World War II, suburban living in the United States led to the advent of the modern version. As cities became crowded and dirty, people began to seek improved living conditions which resulted in the development of outdoor strip malls.

Fully enclosed shopping malls first appeared in the 1950s. The Northgate Mall built in Seattle, Washington, USA, and the Northland Shopping Center built near Detroit, Michigan, USA, were the first indoor malls. Constructed between 1950 and 1954, they were originally open-air centers which were later enclosed.

Regional and super-regional malls are designed to service larger areas than traditional shopping centers. They are often part of larger superstructures which include residential and commercial office space. They serve as the primary shopping area for the region in which they are located.

Outlet malls are shopping centers in which goods are sold to the public directly from manufacturer stores. They also include shops selling discontinued and customer returned products at significantly lowered prices. The first outlet mall opened in Reading, Pennsylvania, USA, in 1974.

Food courts are common components of shopping malls. They feature vendors selling a variety of foods and a seating area. This area is generally an open plaza surrounded by the various vendors.

Large chain department stores are also a mainstay of many shopping malls. In the beginning, these anchor stores were financially necessary for the shopping centers to remain open. Today, they exist as a means of attracting traffic to the smaller stores found within malls. They are placed as far from one another as possible to maximize this traffic.

There has been some controversy surrounding modern shopping malls due to their displacement of traditional small businesses and main streets. Many modern consumers still prefer shopping centers with ample parking, entertainment, and private security over crowded downtown areas. This preference has led to the downfall of many "mom and pop" stores in local commercial centers.

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Discussion Comments

By anon978045 — On Nov 14, 2014

When I was growing up, there was an old-school shopping center near my house that we visited just about every day. The actual name of the place was the Stow-Kent Shopping Center, not a mall or a plaza. All of the stores were housed in a large "L" shaped strip mall along the perimeter, with a huge asphalt parking lot in the middle. There was always a grocery store at one or both ends, but the names changed from time to time.

There was also a pizzeria, a department store like Woolworth's, a beauty shop and several clothing stores. A shopper could pretty much take care of every need just by walking from one end of the shopping center to the other. It was a great place to visit back in the 1960s and 1970s, but now it's become completely outdated. The last I heard, the city agreed to rezone the property and it's due to be torn down soon. A giant box grocery and department store is going to be put up in its place.

By wavy58 — On May 28, 2012

I had never really thought about it before reading this article, but shopping centers do group the smaller stores in between the larger ones. There is a huge mall about 45 minutes away from my house, and to walk from one chain store to the other is good exercise, because they are all so well spaced out.

Two chain stores lie at each end of the mall, and one lies directly in the center. Another two are placed about midway between the center and the each end.

They do have outdoor entrances, though, so if someone is handicapped or just doesn’t want to walk very much, he or she can park right outside the chain store and go through its door. This might not be wonderful for the other stores in between, but it is a fact that some customers would not come to the stores if they could not access them easily, because some people just have health issues.

By lighth0se33 — On May 27, 2012

I go to an outlet mall that has one huge store and about three smaller ones inside. The huge store sells designer brands at a deep discount, and mostly everyone who comes to this mall comes for this store.

However, the other businesses are really quaint. There is a unique gift shop that features arts and crafts from local artists, and there is a candy shop that I absolutely have to visit every time I go there. Any woman with children in tow gets nagged into going here, too.

It was smart of the business owners to locate in the mall with the outlet store. Without this strategic location, they might not have become successful.

By kylee07drg — On May 27, 2012

@shell4life - That’s great that you have such tight security. I wish I could say the same for the big shopping center in my city.

I hear about my shopping center in the news often, and it isn’t for a good reason. People are always getting shot or robbed right outside the stores, and even the cops seem to be scared to come around this area.

I’m scared to shop there now. I drive a whole hour to go to a different shopping center, because I fear for my life. I have to plan shopping trips way in advance because of this, but I feel so much more secure going to this well-lit, well-guarded center.

By shell4life — On May 26, 2012

I am employed by a big name department store, and its shopping center has security guards on duty at all times. I love this, because when I get off work at night, I feel safe walking to my car.

The shopping center is open to the outside. The store where I work is surrounded on both sides by smaller businesses, and there is a huge parking lot out front.

I work until 10 p.m., so it is always dark when I get off. A security guard is standing outside the door, and he watches me walk to my car. Without him, I would feel very nervous and vulnerable.

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