Even If You Build it … They May Not Come

Out there in the Jersey Meadowlands, where both the foundations and the football are shaky, lies the exoskeleton of as telling a symbol of American retailing as you’re likely to find anywhere.

Even the name couldn’t be more evocative: American Dream.

For 13 years, myriad developers under a variety of names have been trying to build the biggest shopping center east of the Mall of America in the biggest shopping metropolitan area east of the Pacific. And for these past 13 years they have failed miserably. Today, the half-finished, half-baked, half-assed structure sits forlornly by the New Jersey Turnpike, a relic of an era that has passed it by as surely as thousands of cars do every day.

Construction on the center—which at various times has been said to include hundreds of stores, an amusement park, an indoor ski slope, all manner of entertainment enterprises and, oh yeah, a couple of big anchor stores—has been in fits and starts since 2004. Today, tall construction cranes every bit as still as their aviary namesakes stand at attention behind hurricane fencing and the occasional security guard.

When the mall was first announced—then called Xanadu—it was an audacious undertaking, a giant shopping center in a marketplace nobody thought was exactly understored in the first place. And the idea of 10, 20 or even 30 percent of retail purchases being conducted online through this new-fangled e-commerce thing was just a forecast out there … somewhere.

Whether the mall was a good idea in the first place and whether it would have succeeded had it opened in 2006 as originally projected, we’ll never know. What’s clear now is that it’s a bad idea today and the stalled construction site tells that story only too convincingly.

The recent history of American retailing has always been a “build-it, they-will-come” kind of tale, with ever-larger destinations being created, whether they were individual nameplates or giant shopping colossuses. Customers were attracted to both like moths to a flame, kids to a candy store, shoppers to credit cards.

Recently the idea that smaller could be better has surfaced. Smaller stores. Smaller retail chains. Shopping centers with smaller retail components. We’ve never experienced this phenomenon in our business lifetimes before, have we?

American Dream has turned into an American nightmare. Too much, too late. Were it ever to be completed—and that looks increasingly unlikely with every passing, steel-structure-rusting day—it will no doubt focus on restaurants, yoga classes, merry go rounds and as-yet-to-be-invented social media stations–rather than conventional retail.

And it will rank up there with the last transatlantic ocean liner, the last Sony Walkman cassette player and the last box of carbon paper as symbols of irrelevancy. People will continue to go to shopping centers and they will continue to buy products there. But building it alone is no longer enough.

That dream has been forever shattered.