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Malls are rebounding thanks to Gen Z’s shopping habits

Gen Z girl riding escalator in mall
aire images/Getty

Speaking as a geriatric millennial, when I was growing up, the mall was the place to be. Our parents would drop us off and we would spend hours perusing all the shops, hanging out at Sam Goody looking for the latest album drop, and of course, eating questionable Chinese food from Panda Express. Then we may have headed over to Claire’s to get some jewelry for homecoming, the 8th grade dance, or even get a piercing.

Now the malls from our youth stand empty, or are turned into strange things—such as a social security office, like my former mall did. But there is hope. Gen Z is ensuring malls are coming back, and it’s not just because of the delicious pretzels you can get only at malls. They’re showing up at malls for the experience and the community it can bring, but I’m sure the pretzels don’t hurt.

Even though they’re the first generation to grow up in a completely digital world from the moment they were born, Gen Z truly enjoys the in-person experience of being at a mall that you just can’t get online. The mall is now a destination—not just a place to shop, but to meet, eat, drink, and hangout, much like when millennials were younger. Now you can see movies, and in some malls, even go to amusement parks. It’s a one-stop-shop type of destination where shopping for goods is just a small part of it, especially when Gen Z would rather spend money on experiences rather than material items, according to a survey conducted by the International Council of Shopping Centers. In the survey, 60% of Gen Z respondents said they’d rather spend money on experiences.

This statistic seems a bit mindblowing, especially because Gen Z is commonly labeled as the generation of digital and instant gratification. But while they do enjoy and expect instant gratification from streaming services and mobile devices, you cannot instantly get something you bought online—though Jeff Bezos sure is trying. In an article from the Los Angeles Times, Ali Esmaeilzadeh, executive vice president at Brookfield Properties, said about shoppers at that company’s Glendale Galleria in California, “Despite being the first digitally native generation, virtually all Gen Z customers shop in-store and prefer physical retail at similar rates to previous generations.”

So really, malls are depending on Gen Z to save them from becoming shells of what was once a glorious bustling place of commerce. Gen Z encompasses folks ranging from 16 to 26 years old, and “make up 40% of global consumers with spending power clocking in at $360 billion,” the LA Times reported. So of course, malls are catering to this statistic by offering more experiences for Gen Z to enjoy on top of stores they want to spend money in—which are apparently stores that are socially and environmentally conscious and brands that are trendy or that they see on social media.

Interestingly, the LA Times noted that in a 2022 report by the marketing agency CM Group, now Marigold, and the retail consulting group F’inn, 47% of Gen Z respondents said they prefer to shop in store over online—more than any other generation.

Thanks to Gen Z, maybe one day we will be able to drop our kids off at the mall to hang on a Saturday to see friends, do some shopping, catch a movie, and grab something to eat—especially mall pretzels, obviously.