First Major U.S. Shopping Center Opens Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The development of shopping centers provided customers with ease of access to consumer goods and retailers with growth opportunities.

Summary of Event

The development of the shopping center concept in the United States from the 1920’s through the mid-twentieth century came about because of lifestyle and environmental changes taking place in the country. Increasingly widespread ownership of automobiles allowed growing numbers of city workers to live in the suburbs. Increased automobile traffic in turn led to congestion on city streets, making it difficult for customers to shop along those streets comfortably and at their leisure. Developments in aviation and the introduction of bus lines also promoted the trend toward the building of shopping centers in suburban areas, as did the rise of housing developments, large apartment complexes, family hotels, and restaurants on the perimeters of cities. In addition, professionals such as doctors and accountants gradually began establishing practices in the suburbs. As more and more Americans made their homes in the suburbs, they demanded shopping facilities that were conveniently located. Shopping centers Retailing;shopping centers Architecture;shopping centers Suburbs;shopping centers [kw]First Major U.S. Shopping Center Opens (1922) [kw]U.S. Shopping Center Opens, First Major (1922) [kw]Shopping Center Opens, First Major U.S. (1922) Shopping centers Retailing;shopping centers Architecture;shopping centers Suburbs;shopping centers [g]United States;1922: First Major U.S. Shopping Center Opens[05510] [c]Trade and commerce;1922: First Major U.S. Shopping Center Opens[05510] [c]Architecture;1922: First Major U.S. Shopping Center Opens[05510] Nichols, J. C. Shaw, Howard Van Doren

The developers of the earliest shopping centers in the United States based their ideas on the concept of making a variety of products available in one location. The underlying concept was supported by the models of the early American trading post and the general store, which were forerunners of the shopping center. The bazaars of the Middle East and the arcades that rose up in the United States in the nineteenth century were also based on this concept, and developers gained insights into retailing from these examples.

The first U.S. shopping centers were built as early as 1907, when Roland Park Shopping Center Roland Park Shopping Center was established outside Baltimore, Maryland, but centers that were carefully planned in advance came a little later. In the first decade of the twentieth century, solo ventures into suburbia by retailers were the general rule. According to federal historic records, the first planned shopping center in the United States was Market Square Market Square (shopping center) in Lake Forest, Illinois, which was built in 1916. Designed by architect Howard Van Doren Shaw, the center featured a landscaped plaza, stores behind an arcade walkway, apartments on the second floor, and a commuter train station across the street.

Integrated shopping centers, with a variety of large and small tenants under one landlord and with affordable off-street parking, did not exist until 1922. In that year, real estate developer J. C. Nichols built the Country Club Plaza, Country Club Plaza (shopping center) the first planned, fully integrated shopping center in the United States. The center was located on a forty-acre site five miles south of downtown Kansas City, Missouri, and the extensive plans accounted for the pattern of traffic flow and road width, parking arrangements for customers and employees, delivery systems, pedestrian walkways, display window locations and control of other advertisement forms, interior and exterior building design, store locations according to merchandise lines, landscaped plazas, and proximity of other shopping facilities. The buildings featured Spanish-style architecture with detailed ornamental corners and towers. The uniform height of the buildings, lack of overhead wires, and attention paid to architectural details provided the shopping center with a distinctive and harmonious appearance.

The development of shopping centers in the United States was further influenced by a survey of female shoppers in New York and Chicago that was undertaken by the Beeler Organization in 1926. The widely publicized results of this survey revealed both the changing habits of shoppers and the need for retailers to give more attention to the planning of shopping centers. Shoppers were reducing the numbers of shopping trips they made, were shopping more hurriedly, and preferred shopping nearer their homes and using their own automobiles instead of public mass-transit facilities, although they often were forced to take public transportation because of traffic congestion. Based on these findings, Harold Dunn, an engineer for the Beeler Organization, suggested that off-street or garage parking should be included in shopping center planning and should be featured in advertisements for shopping centers.

By the end of the 1920’s, city planners and shopping center developers recognized the need to plan integrated shopping centers. In July, 1929, an article in American City magazine noted that planners should include allowances for growth when planning a shopping center and that choices regarding the location and type of center to be built should be based on market research in the target area. In addition, the article suggested that city planners and developers should pay attention to both the general layout of a center and its architectural details and controls. In the same edition of American City, the Country Club Plaza, the first major shopping center in the United States, was recognized as a model of shopping center development.


One of the most important effects of the advent of the shopping center was that consumers could purchase goods nearer to their homes and away from business and manufacturing districts. Americans began to see shopping as a pleasurable and social event, and not only as a necessity. At the close of World War II, mushrooming housing developments throughout the United States created a tremendous stimulus for the development of shopping centers.

Shopping centers are generally considered to be of three types: neighborhood, community, and regional. The type that is built in a particular locale depends on the size of the area’s population and the available space. Neighborhood shopping centers—or strip centers, as they are sometimes called—feature stores that carry limited lines of convenience merchandise and serve trading populations of up to 40,000. Community shopping centers, which serve approximately 10,000 families and occupy ten to twenty acres, are located close to heavily populated suburban towns and villages. Together, the stores in such centers carry fairly complete lines of goods.

Regional shopping centers, the largest of the three types, serve trading populations of 150,000, are typically located in high-traffic areas, and offer a wide variety of goods and services. A good example of the complexity of a regional shopping center is the River Park Regional Shopping Center, which was built in the early 1950’s on ninety acres near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The center included more than seventy retail shops and eating facilities; a twelve-story, three-building apartment complex with more than seven hundred units; a twelve-story hotel; a twelve-story office building; a medical center, including a drugstore; and a fifteen-acre parking area.

The evolution of shopping center design has had a great deal of influence on where, when, and how American consumers shop. The shopping centers of the 1940’s and 1950’s, designed as neighborhood or strip centers where each store had an outdoor entrance, were seen as the ultimate answer to the needs of consumers living in the suburbs. These centers fostered the growth of small department and specialty stores as well as supermarkets and convenience stores. Discount stores such as Kmart and Wal-Mart have always done business in strip centers.

In 1956, the first enclosed shopping center, commonly referred to as a mall, was built in Edina, Minnesota. Necessity was the force behind this design. Edina, a suburb of Minneapolis, typically has more than one hundred days each year of subfreezing temperatures. Enclosed malls attracted medium- to higher-scaled department and specialty stores; few discounters located in enclosed malls. Hypermarkets, or superstores, and outlet malls sprang up in the 1980’s and 1990’s. These are operated by some of the major discounters, grocery chains, and manufacturers and are similar to enclosed malls except that the facilities, merchandise, services, and operations at a given center are controlled by one company.

Innovations were introduced in the designs of enclosed malls as more of them were built throughout the United States. In the 1960’s, the Thomas Mall in Phoenix, Arizona, featured the first usage of utilities and duct work on the roof. This design feature, shielded from view by decorative screens and accessible via special stairs, saved space for merchants inside the mall while allowing for ease of service and relocation of utilities without disrupting business. Another 1960’s innovation in mall design was the elimination of street display windows. Because the entrances to the businesses were all located on an interior walkway, the display windows were moved to inside the mall. Also around this period mall designers began including areas for displays, live shows, demonstrations, and community meetings.

The expansion of goods and services that appeared within the shopping center from the 1950’s on seemed limitless. The early neighborhood shopping center provided a broad mix of merchandise and perhaps a film theater. Sometimes a professional service business, such as a dry cleaner or optometrist, would also be featured. Often grocery stores and convenience stores would be built near existing centers. With the enclosed mall came an even greater variety of services, beginning with food courts and eventually including elegant dining facilities, banks, child-care centers, multiplex cinemas, garden centers, and more—even full-scale amusement parks, as at the Mall of America, in Bloomington, Minnesota, which opened in 1992.

Shopping centers have great impacts on their surrounding communities. In the 1920’s, city planners and shopping center developers were concerned about the appearance of centers and customer facilities such as parking. In the 1950’s, city planners advocated a “look before you leap” philosophy in the construction of centers, suggesting that they should be built only after thorough studies by market analysts, traffic and land planning engineers, real estate brokers, merchandising consultants, architects, landscape artists, and community planners. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, environmental regulations made it more difficult to build centers. Because of this and other concerns, such as a decrease in markets and rising costs, the emphasis in shopping center development turned to smaller regional centers loaded with amenities.

The use of existing shopping centers also underwent a change in the 1980’s and 1990’s. As demand for retail space dropped as a result of slowed population growth and overbuilding (the 1980’s saw 10 percent growth in population and 50 percent growth in leasable area in shopping centers), existing centers began to be put to innovative uses, with some converted to museums, schools, office space, and town houses with accompanying parking facilities.

During the same period, many inner-city areas were refurbished as part of urban renewal enterprises that often included shopping centers for the convenience of city workers and residents, as well as to entice people to come to the city from the suburbs to shop. Trump Towers, housing some of the most prestigious fashion stores in the world built around a six-floor atrium, is an excellent example of such a development. The original purpose of shopping centers was thus reversed as centers were designed to bring people into cities, while in the suburbs the emergence of strip malls offered shoppers a degree of variety in their neighborhoods that allowed them to avoid trips to larger and overcrowded malls. Shopping centers Retailing;shopping centers Architecture;shopping centers Suburbs;shopping centers

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bohlinger, Maryanne Smith. Merchandise Buying. 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2001. Includes discussion of the evolution of retailing. Emphasizes the tremendous growth in shopping malls throughout the United States and Canada over the course of the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bowlby, Rachel. Carried Away: The Invention of Modern Shopping. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. Mixes sociology, cultural criticism, and literary scholarship to examine how Americans (as well as the French and the British) have come to view shopping. Includes discussion of the advent of the shopping center.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dickerson, Kitty G. Inside the Fashion Business. 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2002. Textbook includes readings on shopping centers as retailers of fashion. Discusses the circumstances and the period of the origin of shopping centers, the part such centers have played in the business of fashion, and how they are changing.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Larson, Carl, Robert Weigand, and John Wright. Basic Retailing. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976. Provides an excellent review of the retailer response to change through store locations and thorough coverage of shopping centers. Includes a line drawing of a regional shopping center.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mason, J. Barry, Morris L. Mayer, and J. B. Wilkinson. Modern Retailing: Theory and Practice. Homewood, Ill.: Irwin, 1993. Discusses retailing in the late twentieth century in detail. Good coverage of site evaluation for centers. An interesting retailing capsule is titled “Shopping Malls: The Unlikely Battleground for Free Speech.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morgenstein, Melvin, and Harriet Strongin. Modern Retailing. 3d ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1992. Excellent coverage of store location and types of shopping centers. Suggests sales promotions and public relations ideas for retailing, including shopping centers.

Fuller Brush Company Is Incorporated

First Self-Service Grocery Store Opens

Procter & Gamble Announces Plans to Sell Directly to Retailers

Sears, Roebuck Opens Its First Retail Outlet

Invention of the Slug Rejector Spreads Use of Vending Machines

Arroyo Seco Freeway Opens in Los Angeles

Categories: History