Mall traffic has been falling steadily for the past five years. This situation has led to widespread talk about the "death of the mall" among business pundits.

There is certainly some truth to this perspective. However, it would be more accurate to talk about the slow decline of the American mall. Some malls are dying -- and some are already dead -- but malls in better locations with higher-quality tenants are still extremely successful. My visits to three Sacramento-area malls on Black Friday highlighted these differences.

Customers shopping in the Macy's shoe department at the Arden Fair Mall

There were plenty of Black Friday shoppers at the Arden Fair Mall Macy's store. Image source: author.

Shoppers flock to the best malls

There are three major traditional malls in the Sacramento region today: Arden Fair Mall, Sunrise Mall, and Westfield Galleria at Roseville. Of the three, the Galleria at Roseville is by far the most successful. It has a strong lineup of luxury tenants. As a result, it generates 25%-30% more sales per square foot than Arden Fair,  which is a very good mall in its own right.

Sunrise Mall is at the other end of the spectrum. While all of its anchor spots remain occupied -- by Macy's (NYSE:M), J.C. Penney (NYSE:JCP), and Sears Holdings (NASDAQOTH:SHLDQ) -- the mall is badly in need of upgrades. There are numerous vacant storefronts within the mall, and few high-quality national retailers are present, aside from the anchors. (Objections from the department-store anchors have held up attempts to renovate the mall, Bloomberg reported back in September.)

Customers waiting on a long checkout line at the J.C. Penney store in the Sunrise Mall

J.C. Penney was the only store at Sunrise Mall that was particularly busy. Image source: author.

It was easy to see the state of each mall just by driving into the parking lot on Black Friday. At Arden Fair, I had no trouble finding parking on the Sears side of the mall, but all the spots near the entrances were full. At Sunrise Mall, it was easy to find a spot quite close to the Macy's entrance. Finally, the Westfield Galleria at Roseville's parking lot was filled to bursting. Numerous people were driving around the parking lot, unable to find a spot anywhere. (I gave up after almost 20 minutes.)

Store by store

Given the varying fortunes of the three Sacramento-area malls, it's interesting to note that their anchor tenant lists are quite similar. All three have Macy's, J.C. Penney, and Sears, while Arden Fair and the Roseville Galleria both have Nordstrom (NYSE:JWN) stores as well.

The Sears stores were surprisingly busy, considering the company has been posting double-digit comp sales declines recently. That doesn't necessarily mean Sears is about to report a stunning turnaround, though. Customers mainly seemed to be buying lower-priced items. Furthermore, understaffing may have been a bigger cause of long checkout lines than demand.

A long checkout line at the Sears store in Arden Fair Mall

Sears has been struggling, but two stores I visited on Black Friday were busy. Image source: author.

The J.C. Penney stores at both Arden Fair and Sunrise Mall were busy, albeit not overwhelmingly so. Most of the checkout lines were long, but J.C. Penney helped mitigate wait times by opening additional mobile credit card-only checkout stations.

The two Macy's stores at Sunrise Mall had long lines as well, but that was probably caused by a credit card processing glitch that severely slowed checkout lines from approximately noon to 6 p.m. ET. Otherwise, the stores didn't seem very busy. On the other hand, business was booming at the Arden Fair Macy's store. This performance seems to validate CEO Jeff Gennette's bullish comments about Black Friday -- at least for those Macy's stores that are in good malls.

The Nordstrom store at Arden Fair Mall was relatively quiet. This situation isn't especially surprising, because Nordstrom wasn't offering big discounts and the mall tends to cater to a more moderate-income clientele. But based on the packed parking lot at the upscale Roseville Galleria, the Nordstrom store there probably had a great day.

Is this the future of American malls?

A big reason department stores have been struggling so much is that there are simply too many malls and too many department stores. With mall traffic falling, there isn't enough demand to support the more than 1,000 traditional malls spread across the United States.

However, the Sacramento-area mall lineup has already been rationalized. In the past five years, two struggling malls have closed in the region. Most of Downtown Plaza was razed to make way for a new downtown arena. The Macy's store that anchored the mall remains in place and will soon be joined by a new mixed-use development. Meanwhile, Country Club Plaza lost one of its two anchors during the Great Recession. When Macy's decided to close its location there last year, the mall essentially converted itself to a grocery-anchored strip mall.

The closure of the two worst malls in the region appears to be driving more traffic to the three that remain. As a result, the Sacramento region has surprisingly healthy malls. This situation offers some hope that mall closures in other parts of the country could significantly improve results at nearby malls -- relieving some of the pressure on their department-store anchors.

Adam Levine-Weinberg owns shares of J.C. Penney, Macy's, and Nordstrom. The Motley Fool recommends Nordstrom. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.