Scenes From a Mall

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The death of retail. Photograph of Hugo Boss by Karen Olsson.

It was a gorgeous day at the outlet mall. The sun shone brightly on the Tuscanish facades, on parking lots that an optimist would have called half full, on the strip of patio and water feature called Gondola Park (though its narrow pool was devoid of gondolas), and the pretzel stand. One of my companions was hunting for a suit, the other wanted a new kitchen table, and so in defiance of the End of Shopping, we’d driven to San Marcos to lay down a little plastic—and meanwhile, having read about mega-retail’s mega-woes, to take the measure of the slump from up close.

The Prime Outlets in San Marcos, along with neighboring Tanger Outlet Center, are reported to draw something like seven million people a year, but on a Wednesday afternoon there seemed to be as many salespeople as customers in the stores. It should be noted that this would have been a slow day at the mall in any year, since February is a slow month, and this was the middle of a weekday, two days after a major sale day at that. (“President’s Day? What’s the tie-in?” asked our suit-seeker, who does not typically shop for much besides groceries and coffee drinks, and who couldn’t quite grasp the logic connecting presidential birthdays to retail bargains.) But when asked, store employees confirmed, unshockingly, that things had been extra slow.

For me the combined effect of the sparse crowd and the bright sunshine was to accentuate the hyperreal quality of the mall experience. Normally in a place like that I’d be checking out

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