At 7pm on March 18, a week after the World Health Organization had declared the coronavirus to be a pandemic, and with the US death toll sitting at 171, America’s biggest mall owner shut its doors. Simon Property, which has 204 sites across 38 states, expected the measures to last a little more than a week.
It would not be until May that some of its malls would reopen, albeit tentatively. As well as the face masks, hand sanitiser and temperature checks that are becoming regular parts of life for those still going to work, food courts cannot serve diners on reusable trays, play areas are shut, and announcements repeatedly remind shoppers to obey social distancing guidelines.
With coronavirus still raging in the US, luring shoppers back to America’s gargantuan malls may not seem like a top priority, but David Simon, the company’s billionaire chief executive, says stores that stay shut risk becoming obsolete.
“The retailers that are opening, they’re gaining market share. They’re taking advantage of pent-up demand. And I think others that aren’t ready are missing that opportunity,” he told investors this week.
Simon is not the only one eager to get customers back into stores. The world’s biggest economy is underpinned by its massive retail sector, which is the biggest source of private sector jobs, accounting for more than one in 10 employees.
As a result, retail spending – along with employment – is seen as a barometer of America’s economic health. On Friday, the Commerce Department releases retail sales figures for April, the first full month of lockdowns across much of the US.