YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – While Youngstown may be best known for its steel, there’s another legacy that lives on across America: The modern-day shopping mall.
The idea was pioneered right here, by Ed DeBartolo, Sr. who is the creator of the first shopping mall. But with the advent of online shopping, retail as we know it is changing in ways no one could have foretold.
In many ways, Libby Whetson is a relic from a bygone era. The retired elementary school teacher has already started her Christmas shopping 11 months before the big day. And unlike many, she prefers to shop in person. In fact, online shopping is a last resort.
“If I can’t find it anywhere else, I really prefer to look at it and feel it, and see if it is really what I want,” said Whetson. “But sometimes that article doesn’t exist in stores, and you have to buy online.”
Surprisingly, more customers bought their Christmas presents from brick and mortar stores this year than retail experts expected. Online sale rose, but far less than predicted.
Cafaro Corp. spokesperson Joe Bell said a lot of people were targeting their shopping online and then going to stores to purchase what they needed. He called it online window shopping, which is a phenomenon Bell said could change the game for retailers.
“The brick and mortar people are going to have to have an online component,” said Bell. “As they say, they like to be multi-channel retailers. In other words, they’ll get their sales online and from those folks who walk in the door.”
Many small businesses also have found that to be true. Mike Miller with Miller Rod & Gun in Boardman said he does about 40 percent of his business online these days, but he too sees that “window shopping” phenomenon.
“A lot compare prices online, but we also have a lot of customers who like to do things the old-fashioned way,” said Miller. “Those are the guys who come in here, want to handle the gun, and want to look at the gun. I can’t say I blame them. You know, if you don’t drive a car, you don’t know if you like it.”
But other small businesses in the Valley are staying true to their in-store roots. Youngstown Cycle Supply has chosen not to do online sales. Vice President Megan Stevens said most of her small business friends don’t have websites.
“They want that personal relationship also with their customers,” said Stevens. “It is what helps the community. Small businesses are the brick and mortar of the community.”
But those online giants like Amazon are still cutting into brick and mortar business.
For years, Best Buy has been considered a “showroom” for lower-priced online electronics.
Mike Markle, connectivity business manager with Best Buy, said people come to the store, get advice, look at the product and then go home and purchase it online.
The company tried to combat it this year by price matching, which is something the local store said it did very well with.
“One of our biggest years really to date since I’ve worked here,” said Markle. “It was crazy pretty much every day.”
But nationally, Best Buy took a hit. The day it released its holiday sales numbers, down .8 percent, its stock dropped nearly $11. It was the biggest one day drop in 12 years. Still, the brick and mortar stores have shown resilience.
“People have been saying that shopping malls have been dying for years. And it is just not true,” said Bell. “There is the experience of shopping. Since Biblical times people have gathered in the marketplace. They see this as a social kind of experience.”
That is exactly what malls are trying to ensure shoppers get when they come out. In the future, expect to see more renovations, modernizing more malls, and making the experience more plush.
But despite the more modern experience, Whetson still longs for shopping days gone by.
“I miss that individual where the clerks came up and asked if they could help you, and you described what you wanted and they went and found it,” said Whetson. “A lot of stores aren’t like that anymore.”
And that’s one experience you can’t get online.