Difference between Shopping Center, Plaza, and Strip Mall

I tend to think of a shopping center as bigger than a plaza, and a strip mall as a place like this. Is there a real difference between the three or is it just marketing?

Strip malls are fairly clearly defined- they’re almost always a single row of shops sharing the same building, with an open sidewalk out front, (a “strip” of stores) and a large parking lot between the strip mall and the street.

Shopping center is more of a catch-all term, in that you could describe a classic indoor mall as a shopping center, and you could also describe a strip mall as a shopping center.

Plaza… etymologically, it means an open public space; it’s a Spanish cognate to the Italian “piazza”, and means roughly the same thing as “Square” in English.

So the idea behind calling a shopping center of some kind a “plaza” is to try and attribute more of a community focal point feel to it than calling it a strip mall or shopping center. That’s my guess anyway.

That’s just “a mall” to most people, I think.

I agree with bump: a strip mall is not actually a mall at all, just a series of stores (generally) oriented in the same direction, sharing a parking lot, and all part of the same building. Like this.

I don’t think “plaza” has any fixed meaning in terms of retail venues, though you might expect it to be an open parking lot surrounded by shops.

Here in sunny So Cal, we have fully enclosed “shopping malls” and we also have open court “shopping plazas.” One has a roof over the public spaces and the other doesn’t.

We have those in sunny Florida, too, but they tend to be called “town centers”. Ironic, since the suburban shopping mall is what killed central shopping districts.

I agree with the given definition of strip mall, though ones near me often have a standalone fast food store located across the parking lot from the big building, so that it could have a drive-through window.
Shopping centers typically have several unconnected buildings, often with the parking lot separating them. None of the public spaces are enclosed.

I agree that Plaza is more of a marketing term to make the shopping center seem more upscale.

To me a Mall is enclosed monstrosity with department stores, a hundred small shops including multiple jewelry, shoe and clothing stores. There is possibly a cinema and a grocery store, and several restaurants, and probably a food court, all in the same huge building so you never have to go outside. This is where mall cops work and kids go when they ‘go to the mall’. The Blues Brothers have car chases in a mall. They are visible from space.

A strip mall is smaller and you have to go outside to get from one store to another. A shopping center is any place with more than one store.

“Mall” started off life as the name for the court or alley where the (originally Italian) game of pall-mall was played. (Pall-mall involved using a mallet to hit a wooden ball through a suspended iron hoop at one end of the alley, using the lowest possible number of strokes.)

There was a public mall in St. James’s Park in London in the seventeenth century which, when the game wasn’t actually being played, became a popular place for strolling, meeting people, being seen, etc. It was (and is) known simply as The Mall.

In time the game ceased to be played at all, and “mall” came to indicate a public, open-air place for promenading, with little or no wheeled traffic. It was firmly established in that sense by the mid-eighteenth century.

It wasn’t until the late 1950s that it came to be used, intitially in America and in due course in Australia and New Zealand, for a shopping precinct in which shops are grouped around a pedestrianised open area, usually containing booths, kiosks, refreshment stalls, etc, and places to sit. Initially “mall” was only applied to centres in which the concourse was open-air, but in time it came to be used for places with a covered concourse and, with the arrival of strip-mall, to places which might have no concourse at all.

“Plaza”, orginally from Spanish as a name for any paved public area, has developed a similar sense in US English - a paved concourse surrounded by shops and businesses. I’m going to hazard a guess that, initially, this sense of “plaza” may have developed more in the south and west of the US, with “mall” developing in the north and east. With the arrival of the strip mall, however, “mall” may have become less useful as a marketing term, so “plaza” may have gained wider currency.

I’ve seen malls called “plaza” which were a big building surrounded by lots of parking space; any reference to the Spanish meaning is lost, but then, so is it when used by hotels. Unless you want to go other Spanish meanings (4 and 5) in which it is cognate with the English “place”, that is… but I don’t think the people choosing the names are trying to be subtle. They’re just trying to be fancy.

Except, of course, for places like Missoula, which have both an enclosed shopping mall and a vibrant downtown shopping district, co-existing pretty happily, or at least happily enough the shopping mall is mostly full of stores and patrons and the downtown is likely doing better than the mall overall.

Missoula also has a number of smaller strip malls and shopping plazas, however defined, none of which are dead but a few, perhaps, may be dying.

So it can be done, you just need enough horizontal space to spread out a bit and break up the shopping centers with residential and mixed-use districts.

AFAIK, “shopping center” is an archaic phrase that was replaced by “mall” sometime in the 1970s. Every “shopping center” that I went to when I was a kid has been renamed “mall” around '76 or '77.

“Plaza,” as noted above, is just a name for a large public space.

A “strip mall” is a single row of connected stores and/or restaurants all facing out into the street or a small parking lot, often with additional parking in the back.

Note that the center owner can attach any label they want. So terms like “Plaza” and “Promenade” and such get stuck on to anything from strip malls to enclosed malls.

“Plaza” was pretty popular when I was a kid including two near me. One was a standard strip mall, the other was a semi-enclosed mall (roofed, but not completely walled in) that was later completely enclosed.

“Strip mall” has such a negative connotation most people wouldn’t use it to describe their own property.

None of these terms really mean anything official. Not even “Dirt mall”.

Check this out for some history on the shopping mall. It’ll provide a lot of context for the definition of a shopping mall, which is a more deliberate and elaborate idea than “put some stores next to each other.”

Recently, my sister was confronted in her place of business by a guy who claimed that her use of the phrase “strip mall” was incorrect and “unprofessional”. He went on at length about it, making a nuisance of himself and going on to claim that “plaza” was the only word that applied.

My sister is non-combative, but had it been me, I certainly would have given as good as I’d gotten. Let me clarify.

Here in the Middle West, words for shopping complexes and even hotels slide around a LOT and don’t retain rigid use rules. In my vicinity, a “strip mall” is very straight forward in definition. It’s a group of stores in a strip or row. Everyone knows instantly what I’m referring to if I use the term and I’ve never met anyone who assumed a club involving unclad women or men was part of the deal. But, I can understand if a particular business concern didn’t want to be referred to that way because of the similarity to the phrase “strip club”. This is, unfortunately, one of the key problems with English. Being in large part a mishmash of words that were cribbed from other languages, English is known for being very difficult to learn.

To go further, the word “mall” encompasses two different styles of venue in my experience. One is the shopping complex that comprises one immense building; stores of varying sizes lining both sides of its wide halls, from one to three levels typically, a lower level for a food court, kid’s playground, movie theater, and other attractions, all centered within a parking lot big enough to land airplanes in. Strip malls may surround the main complex, as well as individual stores and restaurants, occupying the outer fringes of the parking lot. The whole is called “the mall” or by the cute name it has on the signs at the curb. Despite that, the strip malls will still be called strip malls AT the mall, to differentiate between those stores within the main building, and those that are found outside.

To me, the word “plaza” invokes a different image. I see places like Oxford England’s Cornmarket Street as a Plaza, since it’s an open shopping district that has stores on both sides of the street, and cars are banned to outlying areas. People walk, shop, and dine in storefronts that are close to the street, surrounded in all directions with shopping options. A “plaza” makes me think of an open air area or square, surrounded by either booths or shops selling wares with the possible exception of a few other non-shopping businesses mixed in. “To meet in or at the plaza,” does not make me think of a single row of businesses a distance from the road.

It may be that these uses are mostly midwestern in nature, but if so, I’ve not seen any dictionary or lexicon describe it as such.

In conclusion, I think the designation “strip mall” is pretty set, given the tenor of usage here. However, “mall” and “plaza” are more fluid, being used in names for locations to make them seem more “chic”, without regard for definitions. Add the name of an animal, gemstone, species of tree, or body of water, and you get the chic name of your local shopping district or, a new development area.

Just my take on it, thanks for reading!

To me, the difference is parking.

A prototypical strip mall, to me, looks like this. The stores are essentially on the main street with only a narrow parking area separating them.

A shopping center, to me, looks like this*. The stores are off the street and there’s a large parking area.

*Trivia note: I googled “shopping center parking lots” to find an image of what I was thinking of. The above linked image was on the first page and I opened it. I then realized it was a shopping center I had been at last week.

I believe that’s the distinction the retail and real estate businesses make. A mall has shops that encircle a covered common space, while a plaza is open-air.

A nice strip mall looks likethis. A run-down strip mall looks like this.

English never stands still. Lately, I’ve seen seeing “mall” used for what I would have termed a shopping plaza.

My guess this is due to the decline in true, enclosed malls. Many places are building what amounts to unroofed malls, with two or three sides of buildings facing a central parking area. Usually these have big box centers and discount stores along with a smattering of smaller stores and services and restaurants, rather than being anchored by department stores. I don’t know of any that have the word mall in their title, but newspaper articles or online comments will use mall, probably because it sounds a bit more upscale.

Similarly, the downscale term “strip mall” is slowly being replaced by “strip center,” although that’s a more flexible term that might refer to stores in an “L” or “U” shape as well.

I believe this is a reversion to the older meaning of a mall. A mall was originally an open-air shopping area. The idea of a mall being enclosed started in the sixties. Now that enclosed malls are disappearing, we’re seeing the older meaning coming back.

In my (not-necessarily-representative) usage, a strip mall has the stores basically on the street, with only a narrow parking lot (possibly just a single row of angled spaces of of the street). There might be a common awning above the sidewalk in front of all of the entrances, but no enclosed public space. Most of the stores are small ones, all the same size, which might be replaced by other stores if one goes out of business.

A shopping center is larger, and has a squarish parking lot with stores on two (if it’s at an intersection) or three (if it’s not) sides. Typically, this is one big store, maybe one medium-sized one, and then a bunch of interchangeable small ones.

“Plaza” and “shopping center” can be used more or less interchangeably, but “plaza” is likely to be a bit bigger. Each side of stores will include one big one and several small ones, and there might be a fast food place or three out on the front end of the parking lot.

Finally, a “mall” is likely to be huge, and is all enclosed.

We also have those suburban things that are meant to look like old-time Main Street, with the parking usually hidden away in back in a multi-story garage, and mostly-unusable streets in the “aisles”. But those don’t seem to have gotten a standard name yet, I’m guessing because people only go to whichever one is closest, and so they just refer to it by that particular place’s name (like “Crocker Park” on the west side, or “Legacy Village” on the east side).

From a commercial real estate standpoint, there are several categories that don’t exactly match yours. These are generally listed in order of size. But they can vary depending on particular uses.

*Super-regional mall
*Regional mall
*Lifestyle Center
*Power Center
*Community Center
*Neighborhood Center
*Strip Center

There’s no definition of a shipping Center or a shopping plaza so thats all eye of the beholder. But these generally have definitions from the ICSC (International Council of Shopping Centers). The definitions revolve around size, tenancy, anchors.

But all these get mushy in practice. If you have something that is the size of a community center but no true dominant anchor, does that make it a neighborhood center? These are the silly discussions that I have on a semi-regular basis.

You can get into more granular categories like grocery-anchored Center, freestanding retail, premier street retail, it’s endless. With all that said CRE people routinely mix and match these depending on what you’re trying to sell.

But to at least attempt to partially answer your question, a strip mall or strip center to me is smaller, and doesn’t have an anchor tenant.