Back to the future: malls, train heists … pirates?

If the past is a prison, I suggest that there’s been some sort of jailbreak. 

In last week’s news, I read of the heady returns of shopping malls, brazen freight train robberies and bands of pirates on the open seas.

What is this, 1979? 1879? Should we party like it’s 1999? 

The resurgence of piracy, particularly in the Red Sea by a militant group based out of North Yemen, the Houthis, is yet another hot potato in a region already roiled by Israel’s incursions into Gaza (and the Hamas attacks of October that invited them). But to call the Houthis “pirates” would seem to be romanticizing a very credible threat to regional stability. “Pirates” does not connote the formidable forces that have withstood nine years of Saudi intervention. 

These guys have anti-ballistic ship missiles, suicide drone boats and “combat divers,” not peg legs and eye patches.

‘Stick ’em up!’

Also roaring back into the headlines are “the great freight train heists” of 2024. Remember Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? The Great Train Robbery of 1903? Well, according to a major cover piece in The New York Times Sunday magazine last month, this critically important link in the supply chain is once again being targeted by both sophisticated burglars and run-of-the-mill opportunists. 

Cases of train cargo theft have almost doubled since 2019, according to CargoNet, a provider of cargo theft prevention and recovery resources that I had never heard of before reading the magazine piece.

So, to the list of shipping concerns, a list led by volatile container costs, let’s add train security, particularly in the western U.S., where just two companies serve the market — Union Pacific and BNSF Railway. 

Just two rail companies, therefore, handle more than a third of all imports into the country, with most of it coming through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. We learned a great deal about these ports during Covid, when containers parked offshore for months because of bottlenecks getting through these all-important ports of entry.

But train cargo theft hot spots also include Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta and Memphis, according to the Times’ report.

Furniture isn’t typically what these looters are after; sneakers, beer, designer handbags, medical equipment and tires are more coveted because of their size and the ease with which they can be resold online. Freight train heists are directly linked to digital commerce. As e-commerce has mushroomed, not surprisingly railway theft has grown right along with it. Annual e-commerce revenues in this country are nearly $1 trillion, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The total was just $5 billion in 1998.

3-mile islands

It will not surprise you that on the railways as seemingly everywhere else there are ever fewer workers minding the proverbial shop. The two rail lines have cut their ranks by nearly 30% in the past decade, a period that has also seen longer and longer trains. According to the Times article, some of these trains extend as long as 3 miles. And there is no federal limit on these extraordinary lengths. 

It’s easy to picture a theft taking place on a Union Pacific train car literally miles from human surveillance up front, be it by cutting a car’s coupling or simply opening doors and chucking boxes into open fields. 

Pirates on the seas, pirates on the rails, and pirates on the road. If train theft is way up, surely truck theft is, too, right? Absolutely, and by rates even more troubling. 

More freight moves throughout the country on trucks than on trains, so much more is stolen from trucks, as well. Again, according to CargoNet, “fictitious pickups,” which has someone impersonate an authorized truck driver online in order to reroute the load, jumped six-fold between 2021 and 2022. 

With shipping, including and especially of home furnishings, going more the route of intermodal, more policing is needed in a moment that finds resources for safety and security increasingly scarce. It’s like sending rookie police to quell a riot. Where’s a Pinkerton detective when you need one?

The Times’ piece puts much of the blame on two trajectories: the tremendous drop in shipping costs over the past several decades, something we’ve chronicled in this space before, and the Amazonian hunger for efficiency. 

“Anything that adds to that transportation cost, including security, is typically thought of as extraneous or unnecessary,” Tony Pelli, director of security and resilience at the multinational consultancy BSI Group, told the Sunday Times.

To the Times’ list, Union Pacific’s senior director of public affairs adds one more: Los Angeles’s no-cash-bail policy. Lupe Valez told CBS News, “We are making arrests, but what our officers are seeing on the ground is that people are basically being arrested, there is no bail, they come out the next day and come back to rob our trains.”

According to Valdez, an average of 90 Union Pacific containers are compromised each and every day, and between October 2020 and October 2021, robberies of the railway’s trains jumped 356%. 

Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón called the situation a “spiraling crisis.”

The net effect of piracy on our oceans, rails and roads is a growing lawlessness that is rending the fabric of American life. 

Hot pretzel anyone?

Let’s end on a high note by celebrating the return of the shopping mall, those urban wonderlands laid waste by Amazon and online shopping. I don’t know if this one passes the eye test, and my college undergrads don’t buy it, but at least according to the Los Angeles Times, Gen Z is leading a resurgence of the mall as they seek instant gratification and opportunities to “hang.” 

Now, this is a retro trend I can get behind. I grew up during the shopping mall’s halcyon days. With no effort right now, I can smell the love candles and sandalwood incense at Spencers, the roped sausages and exotic cheeses over at Mr. Dunderbak’s and the fine tobaccos at The Tinder Box. I can taste the big frosty from Orange Julius. And I can feel the frosty mist lifting off of the ice rink.

This mall rat loved days spent at Four Seasons Mall and Carolina Circle Mall in Greensboro, North Carolina, commercial biotopes where nothing bad seemed to ever happen and where the price of admission was only the ride I had to bum to get there. I was a pilgrim to the shrine.

Was the whale song for malls sung too early? 

Gen Z shoppers want a sense of community. They want to bridge the gap between all that social media they’re doing with the “real world.” 

Aged 16 to 26, Gen Zers weathered Covid largely on their phones, devices with which they enjoy a love/hate relationship. They spend so much time on their phones, they’d really like to shop with their friends in physical spaces, multiple surveys show. Nearly half of surveyed Gen Zers said they would prefer to shop in stores rather than online, which is higher than any other generation, according to CM Group.

And according to a survey by International Council of Shopping Centers, 60% of Gen Zers report a desire for “experiences” more than for material items. 

Why do we care? Well, Gen Z represents nearly half of global consumers with a spending power exceeding $360 billion. And there is only one direction that number is going to go. 

Almost ALL Gen Zers surveyed (97%) reported regularly shopping in physical stores.

It can’t hurt that recent hit series such as “Stranger Things” have featured 1980s malls prominently. Starcourt Mall from the third season of “Stranger Things” is an evocative trip down the memory lane of the big malls, a theme park ride into the very heart of Americaland. (If you clicked the link, check out the Nike Cortez at the 1:44 mark.) Virtually everything in those scenes, except of course the tentacled, face-sucking monster, was resonant of happy, even idyllic days “hanging” with friends. 

But, I just don’t buy it. 

The “Stranger Things” mall scenes were shot at Gwinnett Place in metro Atlanta because it’s no longer a functioning mall. Our mall here in Northwest Georgia is so typically barren, it’s an economic riddle how they keep the lights on. Those seventysomething power walkers aren’t buying much. 

Pirates, plunder and the Treasure Island that is the local mall. You know they are living in a material world.  

Malls are roaring back? I don’t think so. This shot captures all the action at Mount Berry Square in Rome, Georgia, at lunchtime in mid-December, or the height of the Christmas shopping season. 

Brian Carroll

Brian Carroll covered the international home furnishings industry for 15 years as a reporter, editor and photographer. He chairs the Department of Communication at Berry College in Northwest Georgia, where he has been a professor since 2003.

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