23 Things About Shopping Malls Kids Today Will Never Appreciate

Photos with the mall Santa might become a thing of the past.

Exterior of mall called New Town Plaza
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Shopping malls aren't extinct yet, but they're getting close. In May 2017, Credit Suisse predicted that up to 25 percent of American malls will close within five years. And as more recent research has shown, the so-called "retail apocalypse" might even be worse than experts originally thought. An April 2019 analysis by investment firm UBS predicted that 75,000 more retail locations will shutter by 2026, including 21,000 clothing stores, 10,000 electronics stores, and 8,000 furniture stores. At this rate, it won't be long until malls are nothing but a distant memory.

If you get nostalgic about abandoned malls and shuttered stores, you were part of a world that today's young generations couldn't even begin to fathom. Here are 23 things about mall culture that many of us will never forget, and kids today will never understand.

1
Figuring out the map

little girl looking at a mall directory with her mother
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The better the mall, the more likely it was that you would get lost just trying to find your way around. We became experts in cartography just by studying the big maps at every entrance and finding the shortest distance between the Fashion Bug and the merry-go-round.

2
Making a wish with a penny in the fountain

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There was something blissfully meditative about sitting next to the bubbling fountain at a mall and listening to the water trickle down. Sometimes we even threw in a penny for good luck. It felt like a little oasis in the middle of the madness.

3
The thrill of the kiddie rides

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We begged our parents for change so that we could climb onto a miniature horse or train and then be jolted around for a 30 seconds. It was never as much fun as we anticipated, but every time we came back to the mall, we just had to do it again.

4
Shopping for clothes with Cinnabon icing on your fingers

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Malls had everything, and that included stores that had no business existing next to each other. After a midday snack at Cinnabon, the next stop could feasibly involve shopping for jeans at the Gap right next door, which meant flipping through clothes you hadn't purchased yet with frosting-covered fingers.

5
Waiting in line to meet Santa

Mall Santa and kid, Pick-Up Lines So Bad They Might Just Work
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There are still places for kids to sit on Santa's lap and beg for gifts, but there was something indelible about the mall Santa. Maybe it was the lines that seemed to go on forever. Maybe it was the smell of commerce in the air, and the knowledge that what we are asking Santa for was being sold just a few yards away. The mall Santa always felt like the only true Santa.

6
And those extravagant Christmas decorations

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The way that malls decorated for Christmas, it always felt like they were trying to emulate Las Vegas. They didn't just put up any old Christmas tree and call it a day—they put up the biggest Christmas tree they could find. They had nutcrackers bigger than Greek statues, Christmas ornaments the size of wrecking balls, and so much tinsel and garland that it was almost blinding. And we loved every last bit of it.

7
Getting to the mall as early as possible for the live performances

concert at a mall
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It can sound inconceivable to today's audiences, but many of the hottest pop acts of the last century didn't just play at concert halls and auditoriums—they hit up the local malls. It was a different world, when Tiffany performing in front of the Orange Julius didn't seem like the most bizarre thing that has ever happened.

8
Crawling into the hole at the Children's Place

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Our biggest memory of The Children's Place had nothing to do with the actual clothing they sold. Nope, it was the hole at the entrance that kids could climb through to enter the store. There was something incredibly satisfying about crawling through that hole, like you were Tim Robbins' character in The Shawshank Redemption, breaking out of prison and finally tasting the fresh air of consumer freedom.

9
Trying out the gadgets at Sharper Image

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Did anyone ever actually buy anything at Sharper Image? All we remember is taking their massage chairs for a spin or putting their remote-controlled toy cars through the paces. You'd wander in and pretend you were filthy rich for 10 minutes, and get to play with some very cool gadgets. It was the dream.

10
Having your first unchaperoned hangout

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Most American malls were filled with traveling herds of teens and pre-teens, who'd been given their first taste of freedom (with a side of Panda Express). Their parents would drop them off and set up a pick-up time, or they'd promise to call from a pay phone when they were done at Gadzooks.

11
Picking up free samples at Hickory Farms

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Food was available in abundance at malls, and you didn't have to pay for all of it. Hickory Farms, with its red barn facade, was always serving up free samples of something. As long as you liked sausage and cheese, you were in luck. We can close our eyes and still smell the meaty aroma of a Hickory Farms like it was yesterday.

12
Going on first dates at the food court

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Taking your favorite gal or guy to dinner at the mall food court before hitting up a movie wasn't considered a cheap date. It was what serious mall-heads called a great night out. And if things went well, it might all end with a late-night snack at Wetzel's Pretzels. If that's not romance, we don't know what is.

13
Getting glamour shots at J.C. Penney or Sears Portrait Studio

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It was the Snapchat and Instagram of its time. The soft lighting of the J.C. Penney or Sears Portrait Studio did for your skin in the '80s and '90s what filters do for teens' faces today.

14
Using every single sample at Bath & Body Works 

Bath and Body Works store at mall
Mike Mozart / Flickr

You can probably still smell the Cucumber Melon right now, right? Or maybe you were more of a Plumeria and Pearberry kind of person. No matter what your scent of choice was, if you grew up in the 1990s, chances are high you spent far too much time sniffing every single scent Bath & Body Works had to offer before making your selection. And then you toted your mix-and-match 6 for $24 choices home in one of those blue-and-white gingham paper bags. Oh, and don't forget to clean off any germs you picked up in there with some Cherry Blossom hand sanitizer!

15
Trying not to make eye contact with anyone at Victoria's Secret

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You were either in Victoria' Secret to get the 5 for $25 underwear deal or you were with your significant other who was. Either way, the goal was to pick out your patterns of choice and get out of there as quickly as possible, without making eye contact with any other shoppers or employees.

16
Avoiding the mall cops

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They behaved like actual law enforcement officers, except they had no real authority. They were tasked with enforcing law and order in the mall universe, and some of them took their jobs a little too seriously.

17
Picking up cassettes at Sam Goody

Sam Goody storefront inside a mall, one of the great 1990s stores
Wikimedia Commons

iTunes and Spotify have made finding new music easier than ever. But we'll always miss those long afternoons of flipping through the racks at Sam Goody, Tape World, Camelot, and Coconuts. Some of them even had entire walls filled with cassette tapes!

18
Spending hours at the arcade

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Long before online gaming or home consoles, the only way to play the coolest new video game was to load your pockets with rolls of quarters and head to Aladdin's Castle. Nothing builds character like having to wait in line for 45 minutes for your chance to play Donkey Kong.

19
Shopping at Chess King to look like a Breakfast Club kid

chess king clothing store
Chess King via YouTube

When you simply had to look like a character in a John Hughes movie, this was the one-stop clothing shop for you—particularly if you were trying to dress like Jon Cryer in Pretty in Pink. The mall chain alone is responsible for a veritable army of Duckie wannabes.

20
Giving your phone number to buy anything at Radio Shack

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You couldn't buy a measly two-pack of alkaline batteries at the mall RadioShack without the sales guy demanding your phone number. It was one of the greatest mysteries of mall culture and the source of much conspiratorial contemplation.

21
Bookstores that just sold books

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Online book outlets like Amazon have long since expanded to areas beyond just books. But a classic mall bookstore like Waldenbooks and B. Dalton had books and nothing but. Oh sure, they had a few extras like magazines and greeting cards, but if you walked into a Waldenbooks in the '80s or '90s and asked if they also sold picture frames and Harry Potter wands, they would've looked at you like you were crazy.

22
All those weird kiosks

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If the myriad of store choices at the mall weren't enough for you, there were also those strange-looking kiosks in the middle of every hallway, selling everything from watches to blankets with your children's faces on them.

23
"Shopping" without actually going into any stores

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You didn't always go to the mall to buy something. Sometimes, it was just about drifting aimlessly from store to store, checking out the selections and making a mental wish list of what you might like to buy in the future. Some of us spent entire weekends at the mall without so much as a dollar to our name. Ah, the glory days. And if you want to reminisce about your childhood even more, check out the 50 Things Only People Who Lived in the 1980s Will Remember.

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