Malls — some of them already in trouble — rely heavily on anchors such as Macy’s. (Kevin P. Coughlin/Bloomberg News)

Sales are dropping at Macy’s stores nationwide, which likely means rough times ahead for other retailers.

But the department store’s slide could be truly devastating for mall owners.

Experts have already been predicting in recent years that of the nation’s 1,100 malls, as many as a third or even half may end up closing. Dominant locations such as Tysons Corner Center remain incredibly popular with shoppers and profitable for investors, but smaller regional centers have to struggled to remain relevant.

Some owners have torn their once prized centers down altogether and decided to try something new. See the examples of  Landover, Springfield and White Flint malls in the Washington area.

Macy’s executives already say they have too many stores. After a crummy holiday season, the company announced in January that it would close 40 locations, including seven in the outer reaches of Maryland and Virginia.

[Macy’s dismal earnings are a bad sign for the whole retail industry]

Now the company is expecting a decline in sales of 3.5 to 4.5 percent for the year. If the drop in sales adds more locations to the heap of closures it could accelerate the demise of malls rapidly because of the heft that Macy’s and other anchors including Bloomindales (which is owned by the same company) have in drawing shoppers to the stores that surround them.

The department store operator says shoppers have cut back on buying apparel, and foreign tourists have curbed spending. It cut its earnings outlook. (Reuters)

On Thursday, retail analyst Jan Kniffen told CNBC that he thinks Macy’s needs only about 500 of its nearly 800 stores and that as the company cuts back he expects a third of America’s shopping malls to go under.

“On an apples-to-apples basis, we have twice as much per-capita retail space as any other place in the world. The U.K. is second. They’re half of what we are. So, yes, we are the most over-stored place in the world,” Kniffen told the station.

Part of the reason losing Macy’s is so painful for mall owners is how difficult the stores are to replace, particularly as other chains cut back as well. Another mall stalwart, Gap, reported company-wide sales down 5 percent this week as well and is considering how many Banana Republic and Old Navy stores it really needs.

Given that outlook, it’s not too early to wonder how many other Macy’s-anchored malls and shopping centers could survive if the department store shutters locations. For Washingtonians, this threat could come much closer to home as Macy’s still has more than a dozen stores in and around the Capital Beltway.

How would Westfield Wheaton fare without its Macy’s? How about Prince George’s Plaza? What about Fair Oaks Mall, which has two Macy’s — one department store and one furniture gallery. Could it thrive if those stores closed?

It appears the reckoning for shopping malls is far from over.

Staff writer Sarah Halzack contributed.

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz