Shopping used to be an all-day affair. You’d get a group of friends together with a shared goal in mind, like picking out the right prom dress or finding the perfect outfit for an upcoming interview.

Now, instead of setting aside your Saturday for a day of shopping, talking and trying on clothes in dressing rooms, most people order online. Think about it, why would you actually go to the store to buy a new outfit when you can accomplish the same task while laying in bed watching Hulu?

That’s the mindset I had. I was a Hulu-watching, outfit-orderer by all accounts, until I attended Valerie Bauerlein’s Baldwin Business and Financial Journalism lecture at University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications on Feb. 28.

The lecture, which focused on the effects of online shopping on malls in smaller communities, emerged out of Bauerlein’s reporting on the topic for the Wall Street Journal. She has worked at WSJ since 2005.  

“We’ll still have them, right?” Bauerlein asked the audience of over 100 attendees while raising the question of whether or not malls will still be around in five years. It’s hard to imagine not having malls, especially if you’re from an urban city where malls are thriving.

However, in more rural communities, that is becoming a very real reality. Coining it the “Retail Apocalypse,” Bauerlein shares with the audience that 2017 was one of the hardest years for malls to date. “More than 6,000 malls and stores closed, which was more than at the height of the Great Recession.”

In an effort to find out just how extensive the damage this rapid change in retail has had on these small communities, Bauerlein visited two different towns: Elmira, New York and Wausau, Wisconsin. Both towns experienced a change as a result of losing its main mall; however, each one felt it differently.

Elmira started as a town known for manufacturing, but as the profitability of that waned, its local mall became the biggest contribution financially. Eventually, local governments started to rely on the sales tax made from that mall over property taxes. When the mall began to fail, people lost their jobs and the city had to make deep budget cuts.

In contrast, Wausau still maintained a mostly middle-class community. No major fiscal cuts were made after the local mall closed. For them, the impact wasn’t primarily economic like it was in Elmira; it was social. To them, they lost a communal hangout space.

Those are just two examples of this ripple effect. As more examples and statistics surfaced, the question became, “Just how much more will online consumerism change local communities?” We’ve already seen it affect towns financially and the people in those towns socially.

While the future is impossible to predict, some towns have experienced success turning old malls into hospitals, doctors offices and fulfillment centers, she said. Additionally, other towns have experienced an increase in profitability for small-town boutiques.

In fact, we’ve seen that here in Columbia, where boutiques line the sidewalks of Five Points and the Vista. On any given night, you’re likely to find dozens of people shopping or going out to eat. Richland County government has taken over some retail spaces and plans to add more at the mall off of Two Notch Road.   

Online retail isn’t going away, nor should it. However, the social aspect of malls and shopping is too important to become absolute. So, next time you need to buy a new pair of shoes or suit for an interview, visit your local mall. You’ll find me occasionally buying my formal dresses locally too.