The pandemic years changed shopping in Anchorage. Maybe forever.

The retail sector shrunk, customers turned away from high-end brands and the future of the mall as most people know it isn’t clear.

The Anchorage Daily News and the Anchorage Museum are collaborating on an ongoing series of articles, Neighbors: Stories from Anchorage’s pandemic years. We’re collecting stories and making opportunities for residents to share experiences from the past two years. We’d love to hear from you. Email Funding for this project was provided in part by the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism.

• • •

Kristina Blackadar, 50, a branch manager at an Anchorage moving company, still has a hole in her heart where Nordstrom used to be.

Take bras, which aren’t easy to buy online. For decades she visited the Nordstrom lingerie department, where the same elegantly dressed woman would meet her in the dressing room with a tailor’s tape and return a stack of well-fitting foundations. Recently, on a trip to Las Vegas, Blackadar went to another Nordstrom. As she was being measured, she lamented the closure of her hometown store. “Let me guess,” the saleswoman said. “Alaska?”

“Just that very morning there were three people that had come into the bra department to stock up because of the lack of, you know, any good shopping here,” Blackadar said.

The change for shoppers in Anchorage isn’t just about one department at Nordstom. The store’s closure ahead of the pandemic was part of a wave of retail retraction across Alaska. Among the Anchorage clothing stores now gone: the Gap and Banana Republic in the 5th Avenue Mall and Forever 21 with its large Dimond Mall footprint. As the holiday season approaches, the experience of shopping and what’s available to buy has changed in major ways over the pandemic years. Economists project it’s unlikely to recover soon.

Nationally, retail expansion has been flat, and growth in e-commerce favored online shopping businesses with fewer workers, meaning a decline in retail employment. Overall the sector is projected to continue shrinking , according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Before the pandemic, the clothing sector was retracting across the U.S, but the pandemic accelerated that. It declined 38% during 2020 and 2021. In Alaska, retail positions peaked in 2015 and have been on the decline since, following the national trend, according to the state.

[Where are workers to fill all the empty jobs in Anchorage? It’s complicated.]

Some of that is due to a shrinking state population that’s changed the market and to technology – cashiers in some stores are being replaced by self-check-out, for example, Fried said. But, like in the rest of the country, much is related to a shift to e-commerce, which got a huge boost early in the pandemic, according to the state. Businesses selling sporting goods, books, electronics and appliances, and health and personal care products took a serious hit, according to the state. Clothing retailers in Alaska were hit hardest, declining almost a third between 2019 and 2020, mirroring the nation. Over that time period, Anchorage lost 10% of its retail positions. The sector is not projected to rebound to 2019 levels until 2030.

“We’re still shy of over 2,800 jobs where we were in 2015 because we were losing jobs before the pandemic both because of our recession and because of e-commerce,” said Neal Fried, a state economist, comparing 2015 to 2021.

[Sign up for the ‘Neighbors’ newsletter]

Alaskans have always had a high average income relative to the rest of the country, but the difference between what Alaskans make on average compared to what people Outside make has narrowed, Fried said.

“We still spend plenty of money on retail and we don’t have an income tax … We have more disposable income to spend on stuff than the average American because we don’t have that,” he said.

[A shrinking workforce is holding back Anchorage’s economic recovery after COVID-19, report finds]

During the days of work-from-home in particular, lots of high-end retailers suffered, Fried said. The closure of certain clothing retailers in Anchorage may be partially because of shrinking incomes and partially because people are interested in buying different fashions than they were in previous decades, he said.

‘Our demographics are shifting’

Less in-person clothing retail means more Alaskans are shopping online and waiting for goods the way they used to in the days when there were dog-eared Sears catalogs in every house. The mail order economy has also changed the nature of in-person shopping. Lots of customers are going to brick-and-mortar locations to pick up ordered goods or make mail order returns, rather than browsing. This is a national trend the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation watched first with the changes at Nordstrom, said Bill Popp, president and CEO.

The company shifted its national strategy toward larger population centers, he said. And, stores became more focused on returns and in-store pick-up. Now Nordstrom Rack serves that function, rather than the Nordstrom store.

“Our demographics are shifting, we don’t have as many affluent oil and gas workers, as an example. We are definitely not what we used to be and that is one of the big challenges that we have,” he said. “... It is not what it was in the boom years.”

[Years after the pandemic forced many Alaskans to work from home, these employers are sticking with it]

In a place like Anchorage, 1,500 miles from the nearest large city, retail has a heightened cultural importance, Popp said. Especially in the winter, it’s a way people connect with each other as well as a way Alaskans connect with the trends Outside.

“We used to be able to go to the mall, especially during the holidays, and there’s Christmas music and there’s decorations and there’s lights and everyone’s kind of hustling and bustling and you run into people that you haven’t seen in years and you catch up with them. And there’s just excitement in the air, " said Heather Nelles, a Palmer accountant who shopped regularly in Anchorage.

Over the last few years, she’s watched familiar storefronts go vacant. The mall has a lonely feeling and there’s just less to shop for.

“It’s kind of like, why am I going there and going into the parking lot or dragging all the way there to park when there’s only a couple of shops to go to?” she said.

She now orders online in a number of different sizes and colors so she can try them on. It’s a big pain, spending extra money on her credit card and dealing with all the packaging and sending things back.

“It’s just too much,” she said. “I finally was kind of like I’ve had enough, I need to go somewhere for a real shopping experience.”

So she and a couple of family members booked tickets to Seattle, just to shop, she said.

The mall

Even though some retailers have closed, Alaskans are still going to the mall. At the Dimond Center, just about every store is hiring and foot traffic has bounced back, said Logan Burt, director of marketing and leasing. The mall had some of its strongest sales in recent years in 2021, he said.

“People were so pent up with not being able to get out and having to do everything online that when things really opened back up, it really created this boom,” he said.

[Why these workers from a popular Anchorage restaurant left a job they loved]

But the shoppers weren’t necessarily looking for higher-end clothing, unless you count the pricey activewear at Lululemon. Dimond Center shoppers come in for brands like Old Navy, H&M and Maurices, a clothing store opening in November, he said.

“People will want fashionable items at a reasonable price,” he said.

They were also looking for things to do. The mall has focused more on “place-making,” diversifying the experience away from pure retail into experiences like restaurants and entertainment, he said.

Sarah Cleary, a musician and piano teacher, is not a big in-store shopper. She has always been a thrifter. When the pandemic closed down thrift and consignment store dressing rooms, she discovered the online second-hand site Poshmark. That allowed her to order more used clothing from brands she’d discovered while thrifting here. She also joined a “buy nothing” group on Facebook. She got all kinds of things that way, including a trampoline and a bed for her daughter.

“Sometimes I wanted something new or my kids needed something new and it was really hard to go shopping but like there’s always somebody with a bag of clothes and whatever size,” she said.

[After two years, and against the odds, a downtown Anchorage restaurant returns to life]

The group had a particularly novel bra solution, she said. There was a big tub of bras, including some ordered in the wrong size, and members passed from house to house.

“The gals in the group were just taking turns looking through it, taking what they wanted and adding their own,” she said.

Opportunity for small businesses

When national retailers pull out, it opens up the opportunity for small businesses, Popp said.

“(Local businesses) can give that personal service versus a faceless online service. Try and get a live body at Amazon,” he said. “Good luck.”

Lynn Boots’ family operated Junior Towne, an Anchorage retail clothing store for children, for 50 years. In retail, there’s quality, price and service, she said. A store can have two of those, but not three. In the Anchorage market, having relationships with customers and a good in-store experience are essential for long-term survival, she said.

“So if they’re smart, the locals, I’m thinking of some specific stores, will concentrate on quality and service,” she said. “Our store, people would come in because of the hominess and the selection, things were special. If the stores are concentrating on that I think they’re going to do okay.”

Even for local businesses, though, the retail environment has shifted with the growth in online shopping. Hannah Schruf, 27, opened Weather Boutique, a higher-end clothing store, downtown early in the pandemic. There was no option other than to make her inventory available online. She still answers about 20 messages a day from people browsing on her site or Instagram.

“I think that’s really helped me succeed. I’ve had orders from I think 32 of the 50 states in the first year and a half that I’ve been open just because the internet is so hugely powerful,” she said.

She’s also focused on providing a welcoming shopping environment, quality goods and personal service. Her customers, who tend to be women a decade or two older than her, really want one-on-one service, she said. She’s banking on the relationships she builds with them.

“My store is not cheap. You’re gonna find a much cheaper T-shirt at Target or Penny’s in the mall. But I don’t have any employees still and I am the one who’s talking to every single customer,” she said. “I want people to have the best time ever.”

Julia O'Malley

Anchorage-based Julia O'Malley is a former ADN reporter, columnist and editor. She received a James Beard national food writing award in 2018, and a collection of her work, "The Whale and the Cupcake: Stories of Subsistence, Longing, and Community in Alaska," was published in 2019. She's currently a guest curator at the Anchorage Museum.