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What Is a Strip Mall?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 16, 2024
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A strip mall is a collection of several stores located in the same building that share a common parking lot. Typically, they contain stores like drug stores, small grocery stores, fast food restaurants or small independent cafes. The building is often located at a major intersection in a town or city and is normally most easily accessed by car. Due to a typically high volume of traffic, bicycling or walking to a strip mall can be difficult.

Another type of strip mall or mini-mall, often called a power center, contains a "big box" store, like a Kmart, Wal-Mart, or Target. They usually have additional stores, perhaps a grocery store, bookstores, pet supply shops, electronics retailers, or a variety of other retail establishments and fast food or chain restaurants. Normally, the power center is also located in a traffic-congested area, near a major highway or intersection and, like the smaller version, it may be difficult to access on foot.

Strip malls differ from the larger shopping mall because they usually contain fewer retail outlets and are open instead of closed structure. Early ones might be welcomed as convenient but were often considered eyesores. The earliest versions usually did not exhibit uniform architecture and were just a collection of buildings, making them unattractive spots. With the rise of the big box store, a strip mall is now more likely to have uniform architecture, where all buildings have a central theme or resemble each other, making them more aesthetically pleasing.

One of the primary concerns about these shopping areas is that they are sometimes built side by side. A drive through certain streets in most large suburban cities can feature one after another. In addition, the fact that they can really only be accessed by car means that they tend to increase traffic in areas that may already have heavy congestion.

Since access to the strip mall by car is easiest, some people are concerned about the transition from walking and use of public transportation to an overdependence on individual cars, resulting in added fuel consumption and pollution. This has led some architects to design live/work environments that often incorporate condominiums or apartments among the stores or right next to them. The trouble is that not many people would choose to live next to these stores, since they are so close to highways or traffic congested areas. Frequently, these living spaces are turned into low income housing, which is associated with a higher level of crime. This in turn may make the strip mall less safe. Some live/work spaces that are farther from high traffic appear to be quite successful.

Despite the concerns about the strip mall as a city feature, they are unlikely to disappear. They do pose a greater convenience than does mall shopping, since shoppers can park near the store they want to visit and not have to enter other structures to get to the one store. Even though people can find the stores convenient, they may also find them ugly.

A Brief History of the Strip Mall

Surprisingly, the earliest iterations of strip malls can be loosely traced back thousands of years, to when merchants would gather in a common location to sell or barter goods.

Strip malls that more closely resemble the ones we see today first began to pop up in the early twentieth century. Development rapidly increased through the post-World War II era, particularly as cars became more available to the masses. These open-air shopping centers continue to sprout up in all pockets of the country despite a widely held contempt for many of their hallmark features, from dull facades to congested parking. The demand likely stems from the fact that strip malls provide an unparalleled level of convenience as proverbial “one-stop-shops” for the most frequently used essential goods and services. Besides a strip mall, where else can you shop for toiletries, get a haircut and pick up lunch without ever having to move your car from its parking space?

Since the 1950s, strip malls have evolved from a simple string of shops arranged linearly into more varied configurations. Instead of one row of store after store, there may be clusters of three or four stores that are positioned at various points throughout the shopping complex. There may also be a standalone establishment, such as a fast food restaurant or bank, that shares a parking lot with the other stores but is not directly adjacent to any of them.

Historically, strip malls have been designed primarily based on function, with little consideration given to aesthetics. Recently, though, there has been a shift to creating spaces that are more visually appealing to patrons.

Strip Mall vs. Indoor Mall

Indoor shopping malls, once the embodiment of American consumerism, struggle to stay relevant amid a sweeping shift to online shopping. This, when coupled with climbing rental costs, leads to a staggering number of vacancies in malls all across the United States. Strip malls fare slightly better in comparison due to several variables.

1. Low Overhead

In addition to the cost of leasing a retail space, mall tenants must also pay sizable fees to cover utilities and other shared features such as the fountains often seen delighting mallgoers. Strip malls, on the other hand, benefit from cheaper rent since their stores tend to be smaller.

2. Anchor Tenants

Shopping malls typically have well-known department stores as their anchor tenants. These familiar brands serve to draw their own customers in and also, drive them to other locations throughout the mall, but only on a single-visit basis. Weeks or even months may pass before a return trip is needed.

Strip malls, on the other hand, commonly house anchor tenants such as big-box retailers, coffee shops, grocery stores or gyms, all of which entice patrons to visit multiple times a week. Surrounding businesses reap the benefits of revenue potential when shoppers decide to pop in before or after going to their intended location.

3. Independent Success

When vacancies occur in an enclosed mall, particularly with anchor tenants, it has an adverse ripple effect on other businesses. Store vacancies decrease both operator revenue and foot traffic. Since stores are mainly only visible and accessible from interior points, shoppers will have fewer reasons to visit and therefore, fewer opportunities to explore the remaining stores. Poor-performing malls experience difficulties attracting and retaining high-rent tenants, threatening their ability to continue operating.

Businesses within a strip mall do not have the same level of interdependence. They can still succeed even if an adjacent one fails. Vacancies can be filled relatively easily and because stores can be seen from the street, they can still draw in new customers.

The Future of the Strip Mall

Convenience is the saving grace that prevents strip malls from disappearing off the grid, but more significant improvements are needed if these complexes are meant to thrive and not just survive. One of the most common complaints is that strip malls are an eyesore. This has been somewhat alleviated by a move towards uniform facades but strip malls could go one step further and incorporate elements of the town in which it is located. Bringing a town’s unique charm into an otherwise bland setting could boost public perception, assuage residents’ concerns and transform the space into a welcome part of the community instead of being viewed as a thorn in its side.

Another criticism is that strip malls are too car-centric. Developers can integrate expanded sidewalks and public transit stops to cater to those who use alternative modes of transportation out of necessity or preference.

SmartCapitalMind is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a SmartCapitalMind contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By Melonlity — On Feb 07, 2014

It appears that the "big mall" concept in a lot of cities has been replaced by the "big box store or stores anchoring smaller shops" concept. There are some possible advantage to that. For one thing, there is some flexibility in the design and some space savings might be realized as you're concentrating on a facility that houses a lot of outward-facing stores rather than a huge, enclosed structure.

A big disadvantage is that access to the stores is outside, so shoppers are offered little protection from the elements.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a SmartCapitalMind contributor, Tricia...
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