A photographer has been capturing the rapid decline of shopping malls in the US for 3 years — and it shows just how bad the retail apocalypse has gotten

These strangely beautiful photos might make you feel nostalgic for hanging out in the mall.

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These strangely beautiful photos might make you feel nostalgic for hanging out in the mall.
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Courtesy of Jesse Rieser

Growing up in Springfield, Missouri, photographer Jesse Rieser was largely immersed in the American mall experience.

It partly inspired his photo project “The Retail Apocalypse: The Changing Landscape of American Retail.”

The series explores the retail apocalypse in the US, the country’s rapid decline of shopping malls as online retailers are increasingly gaining strides in the retail space.

Rieser’s photos depict abandoned shopping malls, stores, and parking lots with deteriorated signs displaying the names of companies that are now struggling to keep afloat by catering to online-driven consumers.

Business Insider spoke to Rieser about his series. Take a look.


Living in the suburban Midwest, Rieser grew up with shopping and strip malls.

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His own personal memories helped inform his photo series.

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Going to the mall consisted of “hanging out at food courts and trying to talk to girls, and when that didn’t go so well, always kind of resorting back to the arcade,” Rieser told Business Insider.

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It was also a more common way of passing the time back then.

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“Growing up in the 80s and the 90s, there’s a big part of the American experience as a young person in mall culture,” Rieser said.

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“That was, for a lot of suburban communities, a focal point of teen interaction,” Rieser said.

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“I remember going with my mom to shop for school clothes at a version of Macy’s in the midwest, Famous Barr,” Rieser said. “Or getting into video games and toys and things, and so you had Toys R Us.”

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“And then music and electronics when you’re a little older — and that’s Circuit City and Best Buy,” Rieser said.

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But over the years, brick-and-mortar spaces have played less of a role in the retail landscape as stores continue to shutter due to retail’s growing online presence.

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Source: Business Insider


Just this year, more than 3,800 stores, like Toys R Us, Macy’s, and Sears, were projected to close, while e-commerce giant Amazon was expected to rake in 5% of all retail sales in 2018.

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Source: Business Insider and Techcrunch


It has prompted Rieser to document some of those closing brick-and-mortar stores.

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The resulting ongoing project, “The Retail Apocalypse: The Changing Landscape of American Retail,” actually consists of two parts.

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One half of the series focuses on shuttered stores and the other consists of structures essential to e-commerce, said Rieser.

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The latter half of the series includes business parks, shipping and fulfillment centers, and server facilities. He began photographing this part of the series in 2015.

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“They’re faceless, there are no windows, they’re very geometric, there’s a coldness to them, and also very forgettable,” Rieser said about the sprawling business parks he photographed.

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He said he didn’t start capturing shuttered department stores and malls until early 2016 …

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… which is when stores started really re-structuring, closing its doors, and consolidating, he said.

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“That’s when I started photographing what you see in the first half of the project, where it’s just the Toys R Us and the Macy’s and the malls, Sears, and all these companies that are really struggling,” Rieser said.

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Rieser is located in Phoenix, Arizona, so he took to areas about two hours outside of the city for his project.

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It’s a long way from his Missouri hometown, but he kept his childhood in mind while photographing the series.

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“For me the project is kind of celebrating these structures, these businesses that somehow kind of reflected my changing interests as a child and then a young man and photographing them almost as these modern-day architectural ruins, if you will,” Rieser said.

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He said the project helped him frame his own feeling of nostalgia for the suburban American experience he was accustomed to.

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“It’s interesting to just think of this evolving landscape of retail and what that means,” Rieser said.

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He said there’s a social aspect afforded to us historically by physical retail locations.

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“There are a handful of things that humans need to have a level of happiness, and one of those things is a sense of community,” Rieser said.

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He said throughout this project he’s thought of how the shift to online will affect those who rely on human interaction when shopping, like his 88-year-old grandmother.

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“You’ve seen Walmart and Amazon start rolling out their grocery delivery service, and I know that for her, once or twice or three times a week, one of her major social interactions and outlets is to go to the grocery store and talk to people that work there, and they all know her by name,” Rieser said.

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He believes advancements in automation and technology will only quicken a shift away from that kind of interaction.

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Rieser also said that the malls shuttering are typically Class B malls, or malls that are perceived as more blue collar shopping centers.

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Rieser said he doesn’t think malls with more of a luxury focus have that same problem currently.

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“These everyman mall type of experiences are closing at a pretty decent pace,” Rieser said. “The ones that have the Bergdorf’s and the Neiman’s and Saks, those are flourishing.”

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He said that distinction might spur an even wider economic gap in the American shopping arena.

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Rieser said he thinks there’s also a generational shift at play here.

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“Young people are consuming less,” Rieser said. “Their motivation is much more experiential and spending money on eating out and traveling.”

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But he said the absence of shopping mall culture could be a disadvantage for American youths.

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“Malls were a place that young people got their start of learning values of employment and holding a job and making money,” Rieser said.

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“What happens when that’s really scarce? What happens when young people don’t have a whole lot to do?” Rieser said.

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Rieser said things are evolving again just as they had in years past.

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“These larger stores were in a sad way putting out the smaller mom-and-pop shops,” Rieser said.

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But now, he said those same entities are experiencing something similar.

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“It’s some weird karma thing happening, but also a lot of these companies felt too big to fail with their own arrogance,” Rieser said.

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“They just failed to mutate and evolve,” Rieser said. “It’s Darwinism in a sense, I suppose.”

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Just as these larger companies suffocated independently-owned shops, e-commerce leaders are gaining more traction ahead of them now.

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“It’s easy to point the finger and say Amazon, but it is that,” Rieser said.

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The retail giant started as an online bookstore and has since catapulted itself into one of the most powerful roles in the retail industry.

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Source: Business Insider


As a result, many turn to the internet to shop, including Rieser.

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Courtesy of Jesse Rieser

Source: Business Insider


“The thing is that I’m just like everybody else,” Rieser said. “I love the online shopping, but I think it’s an interesting thing.”

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“It’s just kind of a shift that’s at play, but it seems like it’s happening super fast,” Rieser said.

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Rieser said that the closing of brick-and-mortar stores will have a ripple effect in not only the retail industry, but in other areas as well.

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“There’s a lot of those types of things that are going to be much more of a broader global conversation about employment and the economic shift in not only how we shop but how we work and communicate,” Rieser said.

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You can see more of Rieser’s work on his website and Instagram.