Nfld. & Labrador·Analysis

Is the Avalon Mall having a midlife crisis?

The collapse of Sears has brought a dark cloud over the Avalon Mall as the sprawling shopping centre celebrates its 50th birthday, writes John Gushue.
Shoppers headed to Sears at the Avalon Mall earlier this week as it started its clearance sale. (Jonny Hodder/CBC)

A few months ago, my son and I did something we don't do often — and evidently, it's something that not nearly enough consumers in North America have done, either. We went to Sears.

It was a quick-and-dirty shopping mission, just before a night at the movies. It took a moment, but I noticed that more than the arrangement of the merchandise had changed. 

It was the opposite of a makeover. The walls were now a drab, institutional white. Bright colours and other branding elements had been removed, or at least hidden. The lighting seemed more austere.

If it's possible to give a store a depressing look, Sears nailed it.

"Wow," I muttered. "This place is going to close."

That was not a wild prediction at the time, of course. The Sears brand has been struggling for years, with things coming to a head this spring. In the United States alone, more than 200 Sears and affiliated Kmart stores have closed in just the last year.

In June, Sears Canada (which had been spun out from its American parent a few years ago) filed for bankruptcy, setting in motion a series of staggered closures that by three weeks ago wound up bringing down every store in the country … including the one at the fabled Avalon Mall.

A sour note for a golden anniversary

Store closures at the Avalon Mall are nothing new, of course, but it does put a tarnish on the 50th anniversary of the largest shopping centre in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Why, even the current Sears location has been through changes. Woolco held the spot for decades, before those stores were bought up in the 1990s by Walmart.

Sears Canada announced in late September it is shutting down all of its stores across the country. (Jonny Hodder/CBC)

In 2005, Walmart pulled out of the mall, opting to put mortar to its own bricks further up Kenmount Road, in the Kelsey Drive "power centre" (man, that's a phrase that never feels comfortable on the tongue).

Sears, which at the time was still a going concern, snapped up the opportunity to move in.

There have been just three stores in the Avalon Mall's prime anchor position during the last 50 years, which isn't too bad when you consider all of the openings and closings that have occurred in those years.

While some of the first generation tenants are still serving customers (for instance, Reitmans, Scotiabank, Tip Top and the venerable Kearney's), goodness knows how many others have come and gone.

Look at this floor plan from the late '60s for a peek at how comparatively small the mall was before its various expansions.

I was struck by how many small, family businesses took up rent in the mall — no doubt a controversial move at the time, as downtown stores took the hit when the centre of shopping gravity moved to what was then the edge of town. (Think about how central the mall's location is now to the Northeast Avalon.)

Some of the departed tenants (Sobeys, for instance) just moved elsewhere, but others are gone for good. Here are some names that should ring a bell: Ayre's, Macy's, Birks, Tooton's, the Strand, Thrifty's, WH Smith, Agnew Surpass, A&A, HMV, the Gap … it's a long, long list.

Seemingly indestructible

Yet the mall prevails. Five years ago, I wrote a column about the seemingly indestructible Avalon Mall, which has bucked the North American trend that has seen one shopping mall after another collapse under its own weight.

The Avalon Mall has been a juggernaut, weathering the big box stores and any number of retail revolutions. Many of the former tenants are gone because of top-level corporate problems, from low sales all the way up (or down) to bankruptcy.

The Avalon Mall has reinvented itself continually since it first opened in 1967. (CBC)

Even in the case of Sears, it seems that external forces rather than local demand dictated the outcome. 

"These were all high-performing stores," Memorial University business professor Tom Cooper told the St. John's Morning Show earlier this month.

"I wasn't surprised that it was closed, but I don't think it's an indication necessarily that they weren't performing well at the Avalon Mall."

Still, that raises the question of what will fill the not-at-all-small void left when Sears closes. This is, after all, a store so large it has two main entrances. It's hard to imagine another retailer salivating at taking on such a large property.

Regardless of what happens in the anchor location, Cooper says another trend will take root at the mall.

"I think what we're going to see is less of these big stores like Sears and we're going to see more specialist stores emerge," he said. "We've seen that throughout malls in North America."

Times change, and so does the mall

Like me, the Avalon Mall came into the world in an era of tumult but also heady consumer optimism: colour television and jet travel, the Beatles and the Brady Bunch.

If you're like me, you've spent a whole lot of time and probably a small fortune in those walls, and walked more than a mile in shoes (including some perhaps purchased from retailers that vanished long ago).

The Avalon Mall came into the world in an era of tumult but also heady consumer optimism: colour television and jet travel, the Beatles and the Brady Bunch.

My generation was among the first to be labelled "mall rats" — kids who hung out at the place because there weren't that many other options to fight boredom.

While I'd like to believe I wasn't that much of a mall dweller myself, I plunked a whole lot of quarters into the games arcade.

I sometimes feel a pang when a store closes in the mall, but with more than 140 different businesses and services, there always seems to an ebb and flow to the place.

A case of middle-aged spread

Like me, the Avalon Mall is fully into middle age, and it's showing its accumulated years. It's now sprawled out over an enormous footprint.

While Sears is selling off its merchandise, the mall is currently expanding its parking, with a new structure going up by O'Leary Road.

It may not have a lively street scene, but the mall has managed to reinvent itself over the years. It has embraced the fact that it's as much of a gathering space as anything else.

Like it or loathe it, the Avalon Mall has long served as our town square.

It means more to us than some of us would like to admit.

Sears Canada is in the process of closing all of its remaining 131 stores in Canada, and all of the retailer's extended warranties are now null and void. (Shawn Benjamin/CBC)

About the Author

John Gushue

CBC News

John Gushue is the digital senior producer with CBC News in St. John's.