Shopping For Angles

The peril of blaming the economy for everything

USA Today repackages an old story about malls turning to entertainment to draw traffic and turns it into a sign of the bad economy. But it reaches too far. The “shoppertainment” phenomenon is nearly a couple of decades old and has been written about quite a lot—even in the boom times.

No doubt retailers and malls are in trouble. Consumer confidence is beaten down and real incomes are declining. But the traditional mall business has been in decline for more than a decade. Only a couple of new malls open each year and dead ones litter the landscape. That trend picked up steam in the go-go 1990’s as other shopping formats, especially big-box stores, became more prevalent and the Internet launched eBay and Amazon.

USA Today points to malls now having concerts to attract shoppers. Anybody remember Tiffany (not the one with the blue boxes)?

In contrast, The Wall Street Journal has an up-to-date mall story today reporting that lifestyle centers (basically outdoor malls that are what actually get built these days) are struggling with the economic downturn and the credit crunch. Retailers aren’t opening new stores and are actually closing some.

The big problem is there’s a lot of this stuff getting built, and some of it is opening half-empty, as the Journal shows—something that could end up further squeezing banks.

The Journal’s story is a much better picture than USA Today’s of what’s actually going on in the economy and with shoppers.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.