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Perspective

How to Survive a Retail Meltdown

Cities and suburbs are getting clobbered by the collapse of the retail sector. But there are ways to use the crisis as a way to speed long-overdue land use reforms.  
In January, Macy's announced the closing of 68 stores, part of a widespread decline in brick-and-mortar retail activity.
In January, Macy's announced the closing of 68 stores, part of a widespread decline in brick-and-mortar retail activity. Mike Blake/Reuters

The proliferation of half-vacant shopping centers and abandoned malls on the fringes of cities has become such a pervasive problem that we have a new word for it: greyfields. Chances are you have a few in your community: acres of paved parking with weeds creeping through the cracks and a dilapidated big-box structure standing in the middle. They’re the increasingly hard-to-ignore manifestation of what’s often described as the retail meltdown. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the retail sector lost approximately 30,000 jobs in March alone, with thousands of store closings projected through 2017. At this pace, store closings in 2017 are likely to surpass the Great Recession year of 2008.

The retail meltdown has claimed both mom-and-pop shops and once-mighty retail titans; Macy’s, J.C. Penney, and Sears are all in the process of closing hundreds of locations. As these big anchor stores lose their grip, so go the smaller ones. Without big names to bring in customers, mall and shopping center owners are finding their business model slipping away.