The chances are that if you live in one of the Jewish communities in New York and New Jersey or for that matter in other communities all over the USA that there are one or more commercial strips or perhaps even more strip malls. The dictionary defines a “commercial strip” as “a linear pattern of retail businesses along a major roadway, characterized by box-like buildings with prominent parking lots visible from the roadway, multiple driveways, large signs, and a dependency on automobiles for access and circulation.” That pretty much describes what we affectionately refer to as a “shopping area.”
Some of us live in communities that are replete with shopping “strip malls” which is defined as a shopping mall consisting of stores and restaurants, typically in one-story buildings located on a busy main road.” In fact, in 2016, there were 68,730 strip malls in the US, by far exceeding the number of shopping malls. Legend has it that a man named Peckham was the founder of the strip mall because he was frustrated at having to drive around a block two or three times in order to find a parking space while running errands.” As it turned out many of our communities grew rapidly and even the luxury of having automatic parking in the strip malls became a hassle.
In the broader society strip malls are losing favor with customers. One can blame changing demographics, soaring gas prices, and Internet shopping to name but a few reasons, but in the ”heimishe” communities, the strip malls are part of the convenience in what they once considered suburban Jewish living. The special stores that cater to this audience, the Shabbos and Yom Tov rush, all made for an ideal shopping venue. In some strip malls in communities like Monsey and Lakewood, parking means nearby lawns or even sidewalks. Overcrowding has become a product of a rapidly growing community.
The strip mall in communities like Lakewood or Monsey is the equivalent to the commercial strip in many New York City neighborhoods, albeit these shopping areas usually have restricted parking and certainly not as convenient as driving into a strip mall, parking the car, and doing the shopping. For frum Jews, the shopping experience is part of the fiber of a neighborhood. A strip mall might include a kosher food store, clothing stores for women and children and perhaps a Judaica store, all stores that are crucial to living an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle.
Similarly, the shopping strip is as important to those who live in an urban area like New York, Miami, Chicago, or Los Angeles. These commercial areas are the lifeline of an Orthodox Jewish family and by extension the entire neighborhood. Children at a very young age learn how to negotiate a shopping strip. In one Brooklyn community there is quite a stir as a major car dealership continues to expand and acquires street after street, replacing retail stores, being adjacent to a major shul and kosher grocery supermarket and most recently shutting down a chain store pharmacy used by the community. It seems that municipal and zoning laws fall short of protecting residential areas from such takeovers,
But lest we think that in general the commercial strips or strip malls have fallen prey to the new age of shopping, there is evidence that the major chains have in fact been penetrating urban areas for the better part of a decade. The transition from the suburban shopping experience to urban was especially daunting for large box stores that decided to move to the city. They simply were not cut out to replace their huge stores with acres of parking to the much smaller footprint in the cities. Wal-Mart in late 2010 announced plans for its first-ever stores in Washington D.C. To make the new stores fit an urban environment, the company considered an array of new layouts, designs, and parking arrangements.
Interestingly at the same time that Wal-Mart and Target moved into urban areas all over America, as many as 400 former big box stores sit vacant on commercial strips. We’re also moving into an era of hybrid shopping centers. Big boxes are moving into the mall, and many malls will more closely resemble old-fashioned main streets. But in the end today, the nation’s “healthiest” retailer is not Wal-Mart or Costco. It is Amazon.
Who would have believed that you would find iconic brand stores look to open in strip malls, which were previously reserved for small mom/pop community stores. Both Macy’s and Sephora are opening stores in strip malls. Supplements brand GNC announced plans to close 700 of its mall-based stores, and instead focus on its stores in strip malls, which were reporting “relatively stable” store comps. With growing competition from Internet shopping, stores like GNC find it cheaper to rent space in a strip mall alongside perhaps a grocery store or gym. They find these locations advantageous since the retailers have the benefit of being in a place where shoppers have been conditioned to visit multiple times a week. “What we have been lacking is being in those neighborhoods where [our customer] goes to SoulCycle or picks up pizza on Friday evening,” Jeff Gaul, Sephora’s SVP of real estate and development told Glossy. Retailers that have reported having most or a significant portion of their stores in strip malls include Target, Ultra Beauty, TJ Maxx, and Kohl’s.
Repeat business is a key to a thriving enterprise and studies have shown that strip malls are visited multiple times in a week as opposed to a shopping mall, for example, which is more of an infrequent shopping experience.
Macy’s expansion into strip malls came after the department store chain announced that it was closing 125 stores, many of which are located in enclosed malls. The data shows that while there’s no huge stampede of retailers signing leases at strip malls, vacancy rates at strip malls are staying steady, while they are rising at more traditional malls. According to commercial real estate analytics firm REIS, the vacancy rates at open-air shopping centers and strip malls in the US was 10.2% during the fourth quarter of 2019, roughly the same as it was during the fourth quarter of 2019.
One real estate expert said: “Strip malls are particularly attractive to a frum family since they can include the basics, food, clothing, and seforim.” But in the end vibrant shopping areas are crucial to strong Jewish communities. They employ thousands and help sustain the growth and development of our growing communities and neighborhoods.