During the depths of the recession, it was actually a pleasure to walk around my local shopping malls, because there was no one in them. Although the dearth of shoppers made for an enjoyable time for me, it led several mall operators, including General Growth Properties (NYSE:GGP), to declare bankruptcy.
Although their condition today is much improved -- and GGP is back in the black -- ominous clouds remain hanging overhead. My Foolish colleague Alyce Lomax pointed out earlier this year how the glut of malls still clogging the nation's shopping arteries is positioning many of them for demolition or repurposing. Faced with often broader, cheaper selections online, it's not just big-box stores like Best Buy suffering from the effects of showrooming from Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN), but malls as well are feeling the impact.
Fool writer Travis Hoium points out that retailers themselves are becoming brand showrooms, opening up company stores in malls where consumers can come in and try out the merchandise. An Apple or a Disney becomes agnostic about where the sale was made, reaping the same benefit whether the product is ultimately purchased in store or online.
Shopping malls therefore find themselves under assault on several fronts. In a bid to stay relevant, General Growth Properties is partnering with crowdsource driver service Deliv to introduce same-day delivery services at four of its properties, so that no matter how the purchase was made, GGP can "meet evolving consumer demands through omni-channel retailing" and make the mall the point of distribution.
The immediate effect will be to counter the convenience of ship-to-store services used by retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target (NYSE:TGT), which just unveiled its own service that it's calling by the unwieldy name of "Buy Online, Pick Up in Store" that it wants to implement in time for Black Friday sales.
GGP's new delivery service also seeks to staunch inroads of similar efforts made by Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) and eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY), which recently started offering same-day delivery services of their own. Google Shopping Express and eBay Now are regional services that seek to encroach on Amazon's territory, which itself is in the middle of a huge buildout of distribution centers to get closer to its customer. Deliv at least lets the shopping-mall operator not fall behind its competition.
Like the rivals' services, General Growth Properties is starting small to test the waters. But with 123 regional malls in nearly all 50 states, if it proves successful, it could roll out the program nationally and at least stem for itself the prospects that its shopping malls become dead men walking.