The Schuylkill Mall in Frackville, Pa., is open for business, but you have to look hard to know it. The stores that have shuttered–Sears, Kmart, Spencer Gifts, Hallmark Cards–far outnumber the dozen businesses that remain. The customer-service office is cordoned off by a metal gate. The plants underneath the skylight droop toward a ring of yellow caution tape, and the piped-in music echoes off barren walls. The mall used to have a dance club. Now it’s a dialysis center.
A decade ago, the Schuylkill Mall and its 90 stores, restaurants and knickknack kiosks was a nexus of daily life in this part of Pennsylvania coal country, where teenagers met to flirt as warm-up-suited seniors walked laps around them. Crowds thronged to the annual Easter egg hunt and Lithuanian Days festival, a nod to the region’s ancestral ties. “I had to say excuse me a million times to get to work,” says Jane Krick, a waitress at Suglia’s Pizzeria & Restaurant, the last full-service restaurant standing. “It was full of people. Now we get a million phone calls a day asking, Are you still open?”
It won’t be for long. In early May, management gave the remaining tenants 60 to 90 days to close up shop. Tenants expect the property to be demolished. The wrecking ball will put the mall in good company around the nation. By 2022, analysts estimate that 1 out of every 4 malls in the U.S. could be out of business, victims of changing tastes, a widening wealth gap and the embrace of online shopping for everything from socks to swing sets.
This year alone, more than 8,600 stores could close, according to industry estimates, many of them the brand-name anchor outlets that real estate developers once stumbled over themselves to court. Already there have been 5,300 retail closings this year, including Sears, Macy’s, JCPenney and Kmart stores. Sears Holdings–which owns Kmart–said in March that there’s “substantial doubt” it can stay in business altogether, and will close 300 stores this year. In April, Payless Inc. announced it would close 400 of its shoe stores as part of its bankruptcy plan–on top of a separate 400 it had already scheduled to close. The mall staple RadioShack has filed for Chapter 11 twice in two years. So far this year, nine national retail chains have filed for bankruptcy.
Local jobs are a major casualty of what analysts are calling, with only a hint of hyperbole, the retail apocalypse. Since 2002, department stores have lost 448,000 jobs, a 25% decline, while the number of store closures this year is on pace to surpass the worst depths of the Great Recession. The growth of online retailers, meanwhile, has failed to offset those losses, with the e-commerce sector adding just 178,000 jobs over the past 15 years. Some of those jobs can be found in the massive distribution centers Amazon has opened across the country, often not too far from malls the company helped shutter. One of them is