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An Afternoon at the Mall With Some Teens

In-store shopping isn't dead for Gen Z.

A mall! (Not my mall, though.)
Photo: Brian Guido for Racked

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It’s a steamy Friday afternoon in June, and West County Center is busy. The mall, in a western St. Louis suburb, is filled with people, and those people’s hands are filled with shopping bags. Every single store (except for Apple, of course) is on promotion — some are hosting semi-annual sales, some clearance sales. Signs boasting 40, 50, 60, even 70 percent off deals hang in window after window.

West County Center is not a dying mall. Sure, everything might be on sale, but people are taking the bait. Lots of people. And at a time when malls are seeing a record number of store closures, West County has actually added tenants this year. The shopping center is both newish and not, having been built in 1969, then demolished in 2001 to make way for a nicer construction the following year. The $230 million-dollar project resulted in 1.2 million square feet of leasable space anchored by the high/low/medium mix of Nordstrom, J.C. Penney, and Macy’s.

West County reopened a month shy of my 15th birthday, but I was partial to the area’s other mall offerings. There was Chesterfield Mall, which was closest to my high school and arguably the most teen-friendly, with its Big-A triple threat of Abercrombie, American Eagle, and Aéropostale, and the Saint Louis Galleria, which had an Urban Outfitters and a MAC. A decade and a half later, the city’s mall landscape looks quite different. Unlike West County, Chesterfield is a dying mall. Its foreclosure was supposed to be finalized by early 2017, but its fate remains unclear. When I was in college, the Galleria implemented a curfew on Fridays and Saturdays; starting at 3 p.m., those 16 or younger must be accompanied by an adult.

Which is why, one summer afternoon, I find myself at West County to talk to a shopping demographic that very specifically hasn’t abandoned the mall. Earlier this year, IBM and the National Retail Foundation released a study on Gen Z shopping behavior. Gen Z-ers are those that come after millennials; they’re between 13 and 21, which means most are teenagers. The majority of these teens, the study found, actually prefer to shop in-store.

They like shopping for the experience. They see it as fun and social. It also helps that they aren’t big online shoppers — not yet, at least. When you consider most 16-year-olds don’t have their own credit cards, this preference for brick-and-mortar shopping makes sense.

Just a few years ago, however, in 2014, Piper Jaffray made news with a report stating that teen mall traffic had gone down by 30 percent since 2007. That dip seemed catastrophic, but here’s the thing: Teens were still spending a hell of a lot of time at the mall. In 2007, teens averaged 38 mall visits a year; in 2014, they averaged 29. Teens were still going to malls at least every other week.

This is confirmed by Sabrina and Lydia, a pair of 15-year-olds I meet in the food court. The friends are going to be sophomores at a large public high school in the fall, and they come to the mall “like two or three times a month,” mostly on weekends. They both wear Birkenstock sandals (Sabrina’s are silver, Lydia’s brown) and sip on caramel macchiatos from Starbucks. Bags from Sephora and Nordstrom sit at their feet.

They don’t go to the mall to just hang out, they say — they expressly come to shop, spending around $30 per trip, most of which they earn from babysitting. Still, it’s very much a social activity. Going to the mall isn’t a solo endeavor, but rather something to do in groups of two or three.

The mall is littered with these little packs, identifiable by their matching outfits and purchases. A pair of girls in oversized hoodies and cotton athletic shorts clutching pink Victoria’s Secret bags. A teen trio, all in printed pajama pants. Two ponytailed friends sipping from giant Auntie Anne’s cups. There are boys at the mall too, but, at least this afternoon, most of the teens are girls.

“It’s one of the only places to go out at this age,” says Sabrina. “Yeah, we can’t drive,” Lydia adds. “We don’t live in a city where we can walk around.”

West County is light and airy, with blond wood floors, light stone columns, and skylights that allow plenty of sun to stream in. It’s a perfect place to stroll and browse, but a lack of common spaces with seating (save for the food court) doesn’t encourage lingering outside of stores. This is a place for shopping. Also: Instagram bait.

Downstairs and across the mall is a small shop called Snow Factory. It specializes in a dessert called Dragon’s Breath made of cereal puffs coated with liquid nitrogen that causes you to breathe out vapor and look like a dragon spewing smoke out of its nostrils.

A group of 16-year-old girls — Kelly F., Kelly M., and Caroline — are sitting outside Snow Factory, having decided to forgo a cup of Dragon’s Breath for cups of still social media-friendly Thai rolled ice cream. They go to an all-girls Catholic school 10 minutes away and are spending the next few weeks working summer jobs and biding their time before the semester starts in mid-August.

Like Sabrina and Lydia, Caroline and the Kellys started going to the mall by themselves in middle school — and like Sabrina and Lydia, they come here every couple of weeks. West County’s teen-centric stores, such as Forever 21 and PacSun, are big draws for them; for special occasions like school dances, they like Nordstrom and will usually bring a parent to foot the bill.

While retail workers complain that customers often come into their stores to check out merchandise and then make their actual purchases online, Caroline does the opposite, looking online to see if there’s something she might want to buy in-store and then going to a mall to try on and purchase. Kelly F. shops online at stores she doesn’t have easy access to, like Lululemon and e-comm-only brands like Missguided.

But West County can serve the vast majority of their shopping needs. The mall is filled with the usual suspects, like Hollister (which is emptyish and appears largely untouched by time) and Bath & Body Works (completely plastered with red sales signs featuring a yellow rubber duckie). It also has stores I only know about from working at Racked, such as Altar’d State and Evereve (“This place is good,” I overhear a mom tell her teenage daughter), and stores that are hilarious and seemingly out of place, like Pub Decor, which is filled with neon signs and other beer brand accoutrement.

One thing that’s changed since I was a mall-going teen is the rows and rows of kiosks selling novelty products — infinity balls and splat balls, phone cases and charms, drones and hoverboards. Most items are very, very cheap: Sunglasses sell for $4.99 and leggings for $7. An entire kiosk is dedicated to gel pens, while another sells nothing but fidget spinners.

This is great for Gen Z-ers, who are considered financially cautious, a result of having come of age in recession and post-recession times. There are other factors at play here, though. They’re young and have incomes often limited to allowances and babysitting money, or sometimes a minimum-wage job. The market is also flooded with an endless supply of inexpensive and disposable things to buy. Though teen girls walk around the mall with shopping bags, those bags are often mini-sized, containing a single lip gloss or pair of boy shorts.

Fifteen-year-old Naia and 14-year-old Genesis hop from kiosk to kiosk. Today Genesis is spending the money she received for her recent birthday. She’s already hit up Forever 21 and is looking for a PopSocket, a combination grip/stand you affix to the back of your phone. The friends are entering high school in the fall. They come to the mall all the time — something like five times a month. Why?

“I don't know, it's fun,” says Genesis, kindly making it clear my question is sort of dumb. “It's an experience. And at least with this mall, it's close to where we live. It's not that much of a hassle to come out here. And it's sort of like a bonding experience with your friends. You just hang out.” And, most crucially, shop.