In modern America, there is a place where people of all ages converge in a phenomena known almost exclusively to the United States: the mall. Take a trip to one of these conglomerations of capitalistic miscellany and little old ladies can be seen getting their exercise alongside window shopping teenagers and soccer moms running errands between chauffeuring children to saxophone lessons. Since its inception in 1922, the mall has become something of an icon in American society, and this unprecedented expansion can be traced back to the wants of the consumers: convenience, choice, and bargains, but the price of these useful options might be the demise of small business, downtown business districts, and unique shopping experiences.

A shopping mall is the contemporary variation of the historical marketplace, essentially, an assortment of independent retail stores and services. Malls may also contain restaurants, banks, theaters, professional offices, and gas stations. The first mall was an outdoor marketplace in North Carolina. Soon the idea expanded, and in the 1950s, the first indoor mall was completed. The idea was, in one stop, consumers could get a haircut, have their vision checked, pick up a dress for the prom, and buy a decorative sword for the den. In a hundred-yard stretch, one might see a jewelry store, a photography studio, two department stores, a chain bookstore, and a clothing boutique or two.

The amazing popularity of the shopping mall has led to extraordinary growth. In the 1980s, "supercenters" like the West Edmonton Mall in Alberta, Canada, opened. That mall has more than eight hundred shops, a hotel, an amusement park, a zoo, and a 438-foot-long lake. Americans enjoyed traveling to the West Edmonton Mall to shop for several reasons: 1) the Canadian exchange rate favors the American dollar-a U.S. one dollar bill is worth about a dollar and fifty cents Canadian-so shoppers can buy more; 2) Americans had not seen a shopping center of that size before. The novelty drew them there, and the idea of a shopping mall that contained so much for a shopper to do other than shop caught on; visiting Americans brought the idea of the "super mall" to the United States.

The Mall of America in Minneapolis, Minnesota was born out of that idea. With over four miles of walkways, more than five hundred stores, a roller coaster, and an indoor beach for swimming and surfing, the Mall of America has become a landmark for the state.

Malls like these are popping up everywhere; from Jerusalem to Paris, from Amsterdam to Tokyo, examples of this Western convention have begun appearing in nearly every culture.

Though most people adore the convenience of the mall, the institution does have its detractors, most notably, owners of small businesses and those with shops in downtown shopping districts. The mom-and-pop operations have found it difficult to compete in this environment of one-stop shopping, and the downtown shops have found it more and more challenging to lure in customers when shoppers must pay for parking downtown; parking at the mall is free.

The mass appeal of "everything under one roof" has given birth to "supercenters" such as Wal-Mart and Fred Meyer stores, where a shopper can not only purchase home repair items and back-to-school clothes, but can also do grocery shopping and have their car's oil changed. This influx of economic giants has forced more than one independent business to give up the ghost. But while small businesses struggle, major department stores flourish. Wal-Mart alone posted gains of over 1.38 billion dollars, and malls continue to add new stores to the listings almost daily.

The argument could be made the explosive growth of the malls and megastores is because the public demands it. Why else would we see dozens of these stores appearing every year? Consumers demand places to shop where they can complete all their errands while only parking the car once. They like the ability to get everything they need without breaking the bank. They enjoy the variety and the ability presented them of comparing prices before making purchases. Malls provide two of these criteria-convenience and variety-while the supercenters such as Wal-Mart provide for all three, and also give the malls the only serious competition in the retail market.

These shopping centers have developed into more than just places to pick up a few items, however, as can be witnessed on any given day. It might be that, someday, the megastores such as Wal-Mart will, eventually, put the malls out of business the same way the small businesses suffered after the advent of the mall. It is possible that an economic circle will be created, and the independent shops will return to the scene, only to complete the cycle again. We will have to wait to see if that is true. But for today, the mall has become a place to find a date, a place to take a date, a place to get away from the kids for few hours, and a place to take the kids on rainy afternoons. The American mall has become a cultural institution, where people come to meet, to interact, and, yes, to shop.