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The Death and Life of Great American Retailers

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- I spent about an hour the Friday before Thanksgiving in Minnesota's Mall of America.

That mind-numbing 60 minutes goes a long way to explaining the predicament companies such as Best Buy ( BBY - Get Report ) face.

But, it's not just Best Buy. A whole slew of retailers will either die or lead uninspiring lives without unprecedented intervention.

Investors and, sadly, many brick and mortar retail executives float an ultimately tragic misconception: That they just need to do a better job selling online and utilizing digital and mobile platforms. If they do this, they can level the playing field against physical innovator Apple (AAPL - Get Report), e-commerce pioneer (AMZN - Get Report) and others.

That point of view scopes successful retailers through a simplistic lens.

Conform and You Will Be Cast Out

I'm glad I had the chance to visit the nation's largest shopping mall, but the experience reinforced something I studied with intensity in college. Urban planning professors -- you know, those ivy- or Berkeley-educated, elitist liberal hacks -- drilled it into our heads: Suburban shopping and strip malls have no future. At least not vibrant futures.

Rush (not Limbaugh!) was right: Any escape might help to soothe the unattractive truth/But the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth.

I have read countless scathing critiques of suburbia over the years -- Jane Jacobs provides the best one in her seminal The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Practically every suburbia hit piece since Jacobs' spews considerable scorn on shopping malls and strip malls.

While I don't dislike the suburbs as much as I did when I was in college, I have never been a fan of the predominant built environment most Americans not only live, but shop in.

Both the living and the shopping part apply.

"Shopping" has become an online sport and an urban sport. The online part is obvious. We're using e-commerce sites, across platforms, to shop more than we have ever before. That engagement continues to grow. Countless studies support this trend.

The urban sport part requires a bit more explaining. In fact, a test of my hypothesis would make for an excellent multi-method research study.

Trips to the suburban mall or strip plaza have become less enticing than they used to be. You can blame Amazon and the online commerce explosion for this. Physical destinations -- as places to shop -- do not matter as much as they once did. And, thanks to ubiquitous social media, they have also, by and large, lost their status as meeting places.
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