The retail apocalypse helped spark a rapid descent into dystopia

  • Americans vaccinated in empty and bankrupt malls paint a grim picture for life after COVID-19.
  • Retail vacancy rates are at a 7-year high after decades of shutdowns due to the boom in e-commerce.
  • Brands are bailing out failed US policies, from healthcare to infrastructure – and it will only get worse.
  • See more stories on the Insider business page.

As vaccines roll out across America, thousands of people are not getting vaccinated at CVS pharmacies or local health clinics. Instead, they head to Kmarts, Sears and Toys R Us stores to get their shots.

For U.S. businesses that have seen store numbers plummet in recent years, the symbolism of turning abandoned stores into mass vaccination clinics shows how quickly the world was moving before the pandemic, and how COVID-19 accelerated. the passage to an unknown and sometimes dystopian future. .

The end of the COVID-19 pandemic could be in sight as vaccines multiply, but crumbling malls, the country’s messy approach to healthcare, and brands looking to capitalize on the ‘news normality ”suggest that our new dystopian reality is here to stay.

sears vaccine

The Townsquare Mall in Rockaway, New Jersey has turned a former Sears into a “mega” vaccine site.

Kena Betancur / AFP


American malls die a slow and painful death

The past decade has seen America’s cultural touchstones disintegrate amid the retail apocalypse.

Companies like Sears and JCPenney have spent more than 100 years making their brands known – but it only took 10 years for an apocalypse to sweep the retail industry, leaving vacant stores and dead malls in its wake.

The demise, like so many others over the past decade, may be linked to the financial crisis: after the housing bubble burst at the end retailers never quite got back on their feet. Hundreds of thousands of employees were out of work and private equity stepped in, weighing down mall brands massive debts.

Read more: Taco Bell adds 1,000 ‘bellboys’ behind the wheel as chain tweaks traditional and Cantina stores for post-pandemic world

The American mall has started to face a “death spiral,” said John M. Clapp, professor at the Center for Real Estate at the University of Connecticut, told Insider in 2017.

“Once a department store becomes vacant, it tends to be contagious because all of those mid-size stores – nail salons and jewelry stores – all rely on traffic from the larger retail stores,” he said. declared.

A report from Coresight Research cited by CNBC Last August, it was estimated that of about 1,000 US shopping centers, a quarter would close in the next three to five years.

And, of course, it’s impossible to ignore the Amazon effect: The Seattle bookseller has sparked an e-commerce boom, leading to a race to the top for Amazon and its main competitor, Walmart, and opening the floodgates direct to consumers. consumers. Companies like Glossier, Allbirds, and Casper have led the way, eschewing a traditional retail experience in favor of online shopping only. (Of course, all of these brands eventually opened retail experiences of their own.)

In what is perhaps the cruelest twist of irony, Amazon reportedly held talks with Simon Property Group, the largest shopping center owner in the United States, to discuss converting empty retail spaces into fulfillment centers that pack and ship Amazon orders.

The pandemic has only made matters worse. Retail vacancy rates are close to a seven-year high, after the big chains announced the closure of more than 12,000 stores in 2020. Moody’s Analytics projects that approximately 135 million square feet of vacant space could become available in regional shopping centers across the country over the next five years. These vacancies left shopping malls abandoned and quickly turned into vaccination sites.

Many laid-off retail workers have either rotated to discount chains that pay employees much less, or to Amazon itself. And although Amazon pays workers $ 15 an hour, warehouse jobs are more physically demanding and delivery drivers say they have it. dehydrated to get through a shift without bathroom breaks.

Instead of an adequate government safety net to guarantee Americans fair wages and health care even as businesses shut down, brands are – sadly – left to pick up the pieces.

COVID vaccine line

People line up in a Disneyland parking lot to receive COVID-19 vaccines.

Valerie Macon / AFP / Getty Images


Things will only get weirder

The complete disruption of the pandemic puts Americans in a position where the “new normal” is a flexible term. As the transformation of malls into vaccination sites shows, something that looks straight out of “28 days later” in 2019 may be entirely acceptable in 2021.

The factors that enabled this DIY solution – a broken retail system saving a strained healthcare system to breaking point – are not going away.

The tendency to look to businesses to fix broken infrastructure can range from creativity for the best to the worst to the worst. For example:

And as state governments strive to vaccinate their citizens as quickly and efficiently as possible, they have turned to other capitalist symbols of ancient times to help them carry out their plans.

From January, queues meandered around the Disneyland parking lot, but not to visit Thunder Mountain or the Haunted Mansion – the theme park, closed since March 2020, has become a “super” vaccination site where hundreds of thousands of doses have been administered.

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Major-league sports stadiums, many of which had been empty and dark for most of last year, have also become mass vaccination sites. Where fans would have previously lined up to be allowed to participate in a football or baseball game, they are now lining up to get a COVID shot.

Brands have bailed out America’s healthcare system throughout the pandemic. Coors beer breweries transformed into manufacturers of hand sanitizers. Volkswagen made hospital equipment after the country’s shortage of gowns and masks became so bad that nurses resorted to garbage bags.

This type of corporate emergency plan shows no signs of stopping after the pandemic subsides – in fact, it could even happen in subsequent schools. A Vermont mall has become a safe haven for a high school after the school, just before it reopened for in-person learning, was found to have high levels of toxic chemicals known to cause cancer.

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Downtown Burlington High School.

Downtown Burlington High School.


There may be a more nefarious side to some companies lending a helping hand, however, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. CVS and Walgreens – who have collectively donated nearly 20 million shots so far – are seek to leverage data collected from the people to whom they administer vaccines. And the pharmaceutical companies that made the COVID-19 vaccines will not give up its patents to help immunize the rest of the world.

These selfish tactics should be seen as a warning sign, as the United States increasingly relies on brands to build a post-pandemic future. In some cases, companies have unique insight into the issues – like a Chick-fil-A manager helping with a drive-thru vaccine. But relying too heavily on companies whose ultimate goal is their bottom line isn’t just dystopian, it’s dangerous.

The pandemic has shown how quickly things can change. As the country rebuilds itself, it must be on a solid footing, instead of relying on the magnanimity of brands.

About Jason Jones

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