Merry Christmas from The Dakotan!
Published February 27, 2022

Upside Down Under: What is happening to our shopping malls?

Written by
Marvin Baker
| The Dakotan
Marvin Baker
Marvin Baker

Have you been to a shopping mall lately? I haven’t until recently, and it’s quite surprising at the lack of activity going on.

Some of it could be attributed to COVID, but somehow I doubt it because we’ve seen a shift in buying habits before the pandemic and that’s undoubtedly due to the internet.

It doesn’t matter where you live in North Dakota, you probably have a mall within a reasonable distance. Take a look, go walkabout, then think about that very same mall ten, or even five years ago, and note the difference.

Christmastime is when I first noticed this. I did some shopping at Dakota Square in Minot. It was the first time I’d been in that mall in about three years.

It seemed unusual at how few people were shopping just a couple of days before Christmas. In past years you could hardly move in the commons area of Dakota Square at Christmas. It’s hard to quantify how busy or slow a mall is on a given day, but it just didn’t seem the same.

On 2-22-22, which was a Tuesday, I had a lot of time to kill in Bismarck, so I went to Kirkwood Plaza and spent about an hour there. I hadn’t been in that mall in about 30 years, and all I can say is it’s changed drastically.

Granted, Feb. 22 was a cold day, and it was during the week. But Kirkwood used to be the happening spot in Bismarck. A lot of the stores I remembered are gone. Some of the spots are empty, and it just seemed like it’s overloaded with clothing stores.

There were actually two stores that had signs in their windows that stated, “Due to a shortage of employees, we are closed today. Sorry for the inconvenience.” Closed in the middle of the day because of a shortage of employees!

Unfortunately, this is happening all over. West Acres in Fargo, Columbia Mall in Grand Forks, the Buffalo Mall in Jamestown, Roughrider Plaza in Dickinson, even Polo Park in Winnipeg, have all seen shifts in consumer buying habits.

In 1998, I did 100 percent of my Christmas shopping in Polo Park. I haven’t been there since, but I’ve seen photographs of the mall in the past several weeks. And again, granted, it isn’t Christmas, but it’s amazing how empty a major mall in western Canada was in those photographs.

If you’ve ever visited Polo Park, I think you’ll know what I’m talking about. That mall had the hustle and bustle of the city of Winnipeg itself. It no longer seems like the shopping mecca it once was.

Mall of America in Minneapolis is still doing well, most likely because of the variety of stores and because it is a world-renowned destination for shopping.

Unfortunately, the malls in North Dakota don’t have as many as 5 million plus people to draw from, so the business isn’t going to be as brisk. But they are hanging on. I’m not really sure what the answer might be to turn some of that around.

Ironically, there are malls in at least two small towns in North Dakota that appear to be holding their own. One of them is in Ray and the other in LaMoure.

The Omega Plaza in LaMoure has been in its downtown location for more than 40 years, and although there has been a sort of musical chairs in businesses occupying space in the mall, it’s still there and open and still continues to draw a steady stream of shoppers, as steady as a town of 900 can hope to have.

The mall in Ray is similar. Although it’s close to Williston, Ray likes to think it has it’s own identity, and it shows in the local mall. Located on busy U.S. Highway 2, it has two main businesses in the local grocery store and a tavern called Club Ray.

Having the grocery store in the mall is genius, because everybody stops at the grocery store from time to time, so traffic is sometimes brisk.

For Grand Forks and Minot, the Canadian dollar has dried up to a trickle. When the loonie gets a little stronger, both of those malls should see the benefit. And because West Acres is in the largest city and is a major trading hub, it gets enough traffic to survive.

Bismarck, Dickinson, and Jamestown don’t have the luxury of the Canadian dollar or the population of Fargo-Moorhead. Instead, management will have to come up with creative ways to bring customers back.

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