A recent NBC report shows that major retail chains across America are boarding up their brick-and-mortar stores, but the local market, including Crossroads Mall, is not seeing a decline in retail — possibly thanks to the age of West Virginia shoppers and to sketchy broadband service in more remote regions, Raleigh officials speculate.
Crossroads Mall has between 50 and 55 spaces, according to an online mall map, and nearly every one is currently rented.
"Our retail is, overall, very good," mall general manager Kathy Housch said on March 29. "Only four stores are vacant."
Beckley is seeing the same trend, Mayor Rob Rappold and Councilman-at-Large Tim Berry reported in March. Rappold and Berry said retail has continued to grow in city limits and in the nearby metro region.
“Our economy has always been a roller coaster,” Berry said. “Right now, we’re in some good times.
“We’re starting to see some businesses come to the Beckley area."
The positive retail support in Raleigh County bucks a national trend of brick-and-mortar stores closing their doors — an epidemic which NBC recently dubbed a "retail apocalypse."
JCPenney, Payless and LifeWay announced more than 3,000 store closures in 2019, with more than 41,000 retail workers losing their jobs — a 92 percent spike in layoffs, according to the NBC report.
JCPenney, which hosts an anchor store at Crossroads, announced the closure of 18 stores last month, in addition to three that had previously been slated for closure.
Housch said the JCPenney store at Crossroads is still healthy.
"JCPenney is not closing," she reported.
Analysts blame the retail closures on the growth of online shopping, where giants like Amazon dominate the retail market.
“This is significant, and marks an acceleration of store closures and job cuts in the near term," Mark Hamrick, a senior economic analyst at Bankrate, said in the NBC report. “Retail is ground zero for seeing the shifts of change in our lives.”
Broadband in West Virginia is notoriously underdeveloped, leading to sketchy internet service in the southern coalfields.
Joe Brouse, executive director of New River Gorge Development Authority, a nonprofit agency that is working toward long-term economic development in the state, said Friday that a few factors may contribute toward the success of brick-and-mortar stores in the county, including a lack of reliable internet service in some areas and the older age of West Virginians.
"You could make the correlation (with underdeveloped broadband), but I think the age of our population also plays a role in that," he said. "They support brick-and-mortar."
The relatively shorter drive times in a rural area also play a role, he added.
One shopper reported infrastructure development has made travel time to Crossroads easier.
Katlyn Wills of Shady Spring said her drive time to the mall is 25 minutes "when there's little to no traffic — all thanks to the (East Beckley Bypass), though."
Brouse added, "Compared to a lot of urban areas, it doesn't take us a long time to get to places where there's commerce."
Housch said Crossroads shoppers are likely to come from Raleigh, Wyoming, Nicholas and Fayette counties.
Local residents in an informal Facebook poll on Friday reported that their drive time to get to Crossroads Mall is anywhere from five minutes to an hour, and most of those polled made the trip — even if they had reliable internet service at home.
Jeanie Brown, 46, of Princeton, said she occasionally shops at the mall, even though she has internet service.
"When I buy clothing, I prefer to try it on rather than to order it online," she explained. "Even with other items, I like to see and touch the actual item I’m purchasing.
"I also like to shop the sales for bargains, and that’s not as easy online."
Summer Treadway, a mother of two who lives in rural Raleigh County, agreed.
"I like seeing things in front of me," she said. "Whereas sometimes colors are off online, and all clothing and shoes run different, so it’s nice to be able to try them on."
Even among habitual online shoppers, local retailers draw them to the mall sometimes.
Bo Anderson shops locally and online, even though he has no internet service at his residence and only "spotty" cell signals.
"It depends on what I’m buying, really," he said. "Everyday things like food or medicine I get local, but things like books or specialty stuff would be online."
Tammy McKinney of Beckley said that she does most of her shopping online, due to school and work schedules and because she finds better prices online. She still occasionally visits the mall.
"I prefer to shop small businesses if I can," she added. "Most of what is in the mall is not my taste.
"We do like Rural King. I shop there often."
Rural King, an agricultural supply store that sells farming equipment, firearms and some animals, was also a draw for Emma Buchanan, who lives 8 miles from the mall.
"I shop Amazon for anything that is very specific," said Buchanan, who lives five minutes from Crossroads. "I honestly go to the mall mostly to go to PetSmart and Rural King."
John Keaton of Slab Fork said he usually shops online, even though internet service is poor. Keaton uses a "MyFi" box through his internet provider to shop online, he added.
Brouse said retail development, broadband expansion and other factors are vital to economic development.
"We can't do just one thing," he said. "We need the broadband, we need retail. We need brick and mortar.
"We need those jobs to come back."
Housch said that overall mall sales were above average last month, and she is working on bringing a new store to the mall.
"And no," she added, "I can't tell you who it is."