Mall Culture in the 1980s

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The latest season of the hit Netflix show Stranger Things showcases one of the hallmarks of the 1980s- America’s fascination with the mall.

Photo: Twitter/ @NYMag

The ’80s was the time when America abandoned Mom and Pop stores en masse for the siren song of indoor fountains, Orange Julius and the endless spring of climate-controlled shopping year-round.

Those days have long passed, and today, many of the key retailers of that time are going under and declaring bankruptcy. Many of the malls of the 1980s glory days now stand abandoned as shoppers return to downtown areas and seek to “shop local” or sit at home and order things online.

Like the nostalgic Duffer Brothers production, however, we’d like to take a look back at the mall rats and mall walkers of the Mall Culture of the 1980s.

A Central Hub

The first malls were built in the 1950s and 1960s as a central network of highways allowed people to move out of the cities and into suburbs. These folks living outside city areas were looking for places to shop outside downtown areas, closer to their homes. Malls, seeking to recreate downtown areas where stores were lined along streets, did so in a way that was even more convenient, with covered parking and shopping outside the elements.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

By the 1980s, malls had become a social gathering point, where people went to not only shop (and engage in conspicuous consumption) but to congregate, socialize and be seen. The advent of the “food court” helped in this process with dining in central, open-air areas allowing for socializing and sitting for long periods of time.

For many teenagers in the 1980s, “hanging out at the mall” was an activity, one that parents considered safe and teens considered fun. Young people could browse, sit and flirt with members of the opposite (or the same) sex with little pressure to buy, as open areas for sitting and walking were plentiful. It was common for teenagers without cars to be dropped off at the mall for hours or the day by their parents. These kids were often called “mall rats.”

Photo: Flickr/ Rusty Clark

We wouldn’t recognize some aspects of the social life of the 1980s mall today, especially the sunken rest areas for smoking; often the malls featured extensive seating areas, often around fountains for parents and shoppers to sit and smoke while taking a break from their shopping.

The Quintessential Stores

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The majority of major retailers in 1980s malls were national chain stores (rents were very high and local stores found it very hard to compete). Therefore, in most malls, there was a set of standard, if not quintessential mall stores that existed in most malls everywhere. As evidenced and recreated by the Duffer Brothers, these stores included:

  • The Gap (clothing)
  • United Colors of Benetton (clothing)
  • Sam Goody’s/Camelot Records/Musicland (records and tapes)
  • B. Dalton Booksellers/Waldenbooks
  • Oak Tree (clothing)
  • Merry Go Round (women’s clothing)
  • Orange Julius (food and drinks)
  • Buster Brown (children’s shoes)
  • Kay-Bee Toys
  • Thom McAn (shoes)
  • Swiss Colony (meat and cheese)
  • Wicks and Sticks (candles)
  • Glamour Shots (specialty photography)
  • Zales (jewelry)

These were in addition to the big department stores that “anchored” the malls: Sears, JC Penny, Montgomery Ward, and Famous-Barr. Most of these stores no longer exist, as you can see, but any teenager of the 1980s will have spent a lot of time in or walking by them.

Special Features

In addition to the stores and social life, many malls offered something special and something extra to shoppers and guests. Many malls included movie theaters as part of the mall itself.  Some malls featured carousels indoors. The famous Mall of America went even further, with an indoor rollercoaster (this has since been replaced by a series of virtual reality rides).

Photo: Flickr/ Will Flavell

Extensive arcades with large, stand-alone video games were also a staple and attraction in 1980s malls. Home video games were only just being introduced in the 1980s and were very new, and the arcade was still a popular place to hang out, with the video game arcade being a central place to be seen. Time Out and Alladin’s Castle were two popular chains of video arcade.

As we move through the 21st century, it will be interesting to see how malls adapt and change to the times. No new malls have been built since 2009, and many have shut down. What will the future bring?