Vanishing Shopping Malls Are a Big Warning Sign for Schools

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Vanishing Shopping Malls Are a Big Warning Sign for Schools

Most students in school today have never played, and certainly never bought, a music CD.  Within a few years after Apple launched the iTunes store a decade ago, sales of CD’s in America had dropped by something like 80%.

similar radical mutation is taking place right now in retail shopping, with widespread shuttering across America of some of our biggest and most storied brick-and-mortar stores. (HT to Matt Levinson at University Prep School in Seattle for sending me some recent news sources on this.)  J.C. Penny has announced the closing of 138 stores; Payless 800 stores; Sears/Kmart 150; Radio Shack 1,000; Macy’s 68; and the list goes on. According to a recent article in the Washington Post,

…so far in 2017, retailers have announced plans to slash more than 38,000 positions, according to data from job placement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. And yet some of those losses have probably been offset by new jobs at start-up retailers and e-commerce operations., for example, said  this year that it expects to create 100,000 full-time roles over 18 months.

Shopping malls, which arose in the 1970’s as a core element of the consumer landscape in many countries, are struggling to find tenants in a world of online buying.  This is not a minor adjustment to a temporary shift in buying preferences; it is a fundamental mutation in consumer behavior and the nature of consumption.  It is already having profound impacts on jobs, real estate, and how we live our lives.

The legacy stores are not going quietly, and the new giants of retail are not focused solely on growing their online market share.  Hybrid prototypes like Amazon’s new automated Go stores will be tested, fail, re-tried, and perfected over the next decade.  Differentiated consumerism is already here, using big data and digital personal assistants that know what we need or might want even before we do.  These future-focused consumer modalities are pretty much the opposite of the big-box stores that try to stock everything for everyone…at an enormous expense in space, inventory, and people.

If you are an educator, you hopefully understand why I am writing this blog; the parallels to undifferentiated, big-box education are just too clear to miss. Every trend in consumerism points to personalized, differentiated choice, and the tsunami of retail closures may well be a canary in the coal mine of “big box” education.

Does this mean that all education will soon be exclusively online, that classes will become just another item on your iTunes playlist or in your Amazon shopping cart?  Hopefully not.  Education is not retail. I can buy the same book or golf club from almost any physical or online store, and it is the same product, perhaps at a slightly different price or delivered to my door on a different day.  But as I emphatically shout in my new book, Moving the Rock, learning is both relational and transactional, and of the two, the relational is the more important for long-term, deeper learning. Those relationships amongst teachers, students, and the actual experience of learning are a design requirement for the next generation of schools that does not apply to all of retail.  While it may be very important to the customer to have a personal relationship when purchasing a tailored dress or selecting just the right wine for that special dinner, few of us have or value personal relationships with the teenager stocking cans of fruit at the grocery store.

Having said that, those who think that the value of face-to-face teacher-student relationships is a guarantee of stasis in educational models are not only mistaken, but very possibly in line to lose their job. Schools that continue to deliver an undifferentiated learning product that is available elsewhere—or anywhere—are in trouble, even if many do not see the warning signs.  Some will survive due to a combination of market, geography, demographics, and customer expectations.  Others will not; ask Sears or Penny’s about long-term customer loyalty.

There is no one-size-fits-all outcome; that would fly in the face of what we know about a differentiating economy.  Big box stores are going out of business when they simply cannot compete in speed, convenience, efficiency and consumer choice with online shopping.  But there is a pathway to potential solutions: school communities gathering as a group of educators, parents, students, and other stakeholders to deeply question what they want learning to look like, what value is needed to justify the institution of “school”, and what trajectory they will take to get there.  Getting on this path does not guarantee success for your school, but not getting on the path is playing chicken on a very dangerous road.


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  1. Hillary June 12, 2017 at 1:27 am - Reply

    There’s a school in California named Nueva that is remarkably facile at differentiation. Oh that’s right. You know that place 🙂 Miss you Matt.

    • Grant June 12, 2017 at 1:34 am - Reply

      Lots of schools getting better at this…and Nueva is certainly one!

  2. Stuart Grauet June 12, 2017 at 2:42 pm - Reply

    The Grauer School has helped dozens of schools all over the world in advancing relationship-based education: how to drop AP, ranking, standardization and still get kids into the colleges or post-secondary plans of their top choices.

  3. Ronnie June 12, 2017 at 2:44 pm - Reply

    Food for thought…
    Thanks for bringing this discussion to the Northwest Matt.

  4. Mark Crotty June 15, 2017 at 10:50 am - Reply


    Excellent piece. Three points about malls that extend your thinking a bit.

    –You mention the box stores. Malls rely a great deal on having at least one, if not a few, anchor stores, i.e. a Macys, a Nordstrom, a JC Pennney. These are stores/brands that believed they were safe from any threats because of size, reputation, etc. Arrogance breeds vulnerability.
    –While there may be variations in design and amenity, one mall is pretty much the next mall. There is such a degree of homogeneity. You could be in Milwaukee or Miami. Malls lack any real differentiation that add to their value.
    –Here I get real preachy. Perhaps malls having grown so extravagant signifies some misplaced priorities. I mean that literally and metaphorically for how many think about education.

    • Grant June 15, 2017 at 7:58 pm - Reply

      Spot on!

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