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Economic Fear, Not Holiday Cheer, Haunts U.S. Malls

Economic Fear, Not Holiday Cheer, Haunts U.S. Malls

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One of Petula Dvorak's first assignments as a metro columnist at the Washington Post – or maybe it was her own idea – was to drop by one of the swanky shopping malls in town. This time of year, with Christmas trees and wreaths and festive decorations back out of mothballs and decking the halls, malls usually take on a warm and cheery air.

But not so much this year. Newsweek magazine reports that, in the throes of a prolonged recession, one in five malls is going out of business. "Empty Wallets and Empty Malls Leave Retailers Desperate," wrote the respected Huffington Post online blog.

The mall that Dvorak visited wasn't empty, but the ratio of clerks looking for customers was way higher than normal.

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I walk in, and they won't leave me alone, a customer told the columnist.

The desperation of stressed-out salespeople is heavy in the air, Dvorak concluded, despite deep discounts and free shipping at even the fanciest malls.

The Huffington Post's Nour Akkad writes that things are turning ugly. Not only are salespeople virtually pouncing on shoppers – lavishing them with compliments in search of a sale – they are even turning on each other, stealing customers.

Going to a suburban shopping mall these days feels an awful lot like visiting a haggling, freewheeling, exotic marketplace where you get stalked by hawkers and attacked by barkers, Dvorak wrote in the Washington Post. Minus the international charm.

She added that she would quite enjoy the carnival-like pitches if the salespeople were as willing to haggle as are the street vendors of Algiers or Rome. But there's not much room for haggling in American malls this year, it seems. Prices have already been deeply slashed in retailers' desperate drive to stay alive.

Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.