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Shopping Malls: A Cultural Legacy

 

Cover of 1949 Woodward's Beacon featuring a new mall project

Cover of 1949 Woodward's Beacon featuring a new mall project

These days when you head to a Hudson's Bay store, more often than not you end up at your friendly neighbourhood mall. Given the fact that Hudson's Bay is known for its beautiful flagship stores and that Zellers was a Main Street staple in many cities and towns, how did this shift toward mall stores happen?

 

There have been three main stages in the development of shopping centres in North America: the uncovered mall, the enclosed mall and the megamall. Apparently, the mall experience was first available to shoppers in 1922 with the opening of the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, Missouri. It wasn't until the 1950s however that colonnades, plazas, park and shops, strip malls - whichever name you prefer - started to dot the Canadian landscape. At this time, populations began to shift from the cities to suburban areas and car use increased, which also increased traffic congestion and parking problems in the urban areas. Shopping centres, constructed for the convenience of the new suburban populations, were a way to ensure continued patronage from those no longer frequenting the traditional downtown shopping district.

West Vancouver's Park Royal Shopping Centre has the distinction of being Canada's first shopping centre. It opened in September 1950 as an open-air mall and Woodward's was right there as one of the original developers and tenants. The following excerpt, from Woodward's Beacon of July 1949, describes the project:

 

Cover of 1950 Woodward's Beacon featuring the opening of Park Royal Shopping Centre in Vancouver, British Columbia

Cover of 1950 Woodward's Beacon featuring the opening of Park Royal Shopping Centre in Vancouver, British Columbia

"As has been announced in the local papers, a large shopping centre is planned in West Vancouver, and again our store leads the way in being the first downtown department store to have a branch department store in the suburbs. The store planned in our neighbouring community is in every sense one of the most modern structures of its kind."

 

In the fall of 1953, Morgan's opened a branch store in the Boulevard Shopping Centre in northeast Montreal. It was the largest shopping centre in Canada at the time and with its presence there, Morgan's expected to "usher in a new era of shopping convenience to thousands of new customers." Features of the new development included covered walks from bus stops to all stores, landscaped park areas and rest stations. Expansion into malls in other suburban areas quickly followed for Morgan's with locations such as the Dorval Shopping Centre, Lawrence Plaza in northwest Toronto and the Greater Hamilton Shopping Centre.

At around the same time, Zellers also opened a new store in Lawrence Park in Toronto, a location described as a Park-and-Shop Development. In the 1954 annual report, the company noted that while it was too early to tell for sure whether the venture would be successful, "there is, however, a definite retail trend in this direction, and commitments have been made for the opening of two more stores in similar developments in the Toronto area."

It was the beginning of a new era for retailers and customers alike. The trend toward bigger and better centres would eventually lead to the development of huge malls that draw tourists as well as shoppers.

 

Open air mall, Rexdale, Ontario, 1966

Open air mall, Rexdale, Ontario, 1966

The first significant change to the structure of malls occurred in 1956 when they became enclosed structures. This meant not only that customers no longer had to brave the elements to get from store to store but also that in the summer they were able to take advantage of the air-conditioned comfort available at the mall. Many of the older-style open malls eventually converted to this more customer-friendly style, often as part of a mall expansion. For example, Canada's first mall, Park Royal Shopping Centre in West Vancouver, which opened in 1950, converted to an enclosed mall in 1962. Another example, happening a little later, was the conversion of the Oakridge Shopping Centre. Built by Woodward's as an open-mall plaza in 1959, it was converted to an enclosed mall in 1984.

 

Greater comfort was coupled with greater style and convenience. Developers began to include elegant and exciting finishes in areas no longer prone to weathering and to offer a wider range of stores and services. These included restaurants and public spaces for special events. While traditionally malls had been anchored by a single key tenant, the larger malls could sustain internal competition adding further convenience for its patrons. In 1958, Simpsons and Eatons made history by both signing on to open stores in the much-hyped new Yorkdale Shopping Centre in North York, Ontario. When it opened it was, according to its promotional literature, "Canada's largest Regional Shopping Centre and one of the world's most extensive." It cost 25 million dollars to build and contained over 100 stores.

 

Fairview Centre, Pointe Claire, Quebec, 1965

Fairview Centre, Pointe Claire, Quebec, 1965

As competition between malls grew, developers scrambled to build bigger and better centres until in the late 1970s and early 1980s huge megamalls were being opened which seemed to be as much about family entertainment and tourist dollars as they were about retailing. The crowning example of this is the West Edmonton Mall with its lagoon and indoor roller coaster. Its story is an interesting one in terms of HBC store history.

 

In 1979 HBC signed on as a major department store tenant in the initial phase of the centre. At the same time, taking advantage of the diversity of services supplied at the mall, the company opened a food kiosk in the food court area which they ran as a Malt Stop. The store opened in 1981. In phase three, Woodward's, then an HBC competitor, opened a store. In 1993, after HBC purchased the Woodward's chain, the store converted to a Bay store meaning that HBC was operating two Bay stores, the Malt Stop and a Zellers (opened in 1983) for a total of four properties in the same complex! That's a far cry from the days when two different department stores wouldn't operate in the same mall!

Since the opening of West Edmonton Mall in the 1980s, there has been nothing built to rival it. In fact, malls are receiving much less attention these days and the whole concept of the shopping centre is undergoing another shift. At present, there seems to be three new trends in mass retailing. The first is the Big Box store, of which Home Outfitters is an example. These are often clustered together to form power centres, which in many ways harkens back to the first open-air park-and-shops. The second trend is toward town centres. These developments are attempts to fuse the best elements of the enclosed mall with the old Main Street retail experience. They often incorporate office and living spaces as well as spaces for cultural and civic activities, in effect creating miniature cities. The final trend is toward the virtual mall, where service providers deliver access to groups of online retailers and offer users access to Internet-commerce applications. We'll just have to wait and see which of these trends will survive the next fifty years of retail.