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Arts + Life

CMC Forum: The Forces Shaping Retail - A Conversation with Yaromir Steiner

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Once a staple of both the suburban and urban scene, the American shopping mall has suffered a visible decline in the past two decades. While high-end developments like Columbus’s Polaris Fashion Place and Easton Town Center continue to expand, many once-thriving U.S. malls have closed. Conventional wisdom has blamed the rise of online retailers, the declining popularity of department store chains, and COVID-19 lockdowns that have kept would-be shoppers at home, but a significant factor is likely the disappearing American middle class.

According to Yaromir Steiner, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Steiner + Associates, the mall’s demise is inexorably linked to the shrinking American middle class. For a time in the 20th century, 67% of American earnings were spread across 90% of the country’s population. This income share shrank to less than 50% by 2010 and has continued to fall. It’s this disposable income that helped to power the rise of the American mall, and its disappearance is taking many malls with it. According to a 2020 Pew Research Center report, the share of wealth held by upper-income families rose from 60% to 79% between 1983 and 2016, while the share held by middle-income families fell from 32% to 17%.

Yet many brick-and-mortar retailers have done exceptionally well recently, including one retail segment in particular: dollar stores. Known for their bargain-priced household staples, dollar stores – including Dollar General, Dollar Tree, and Family Dollar, are forecast to make up nearly half of all U.S. retail store openings in 2021. With their small square-footage footprints, these sub-10,000-square-foot properties can squeeze into many spaces that larger competitors can’t. The rise of this retail segment is further proof that Americans who once spent freely at malls are now increasingly looking for bargains closer to home.

What does the future of American retail hold in store? What’s next for America’s abandoned sprawling malls, especially given current housing shortages in many cities? Yaromir Steiner, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Steiner + Associates, and Matt Barnes, Morning Co-Anchor with NBC4 Today will discuss the forces shaping retail’s present and future in Central Ohio.