Friday Letter A tale of two malls

The mall wasn’t really open yet, but that didn’t stop the throngs of Singaporeans (and a few ang moh—foreigners—from PERE) from muscling their way into Vivo City earlier this month. Workers scurried around wiring lights, installing doors and putting the final touches on the building, while the masses freely traipsed through the uncompleted mall/construction site. 

Billed as “Singapore’s largest multi-experiential retail and entertainment destination,” Vivo City has more than 1 million square feet of retail, restaurant and entertainment space, including the city-state’s largest cinema multiplex, a supermarket, a monorail to the nearby Sentosa resort island, a wading pool on the roof and plenty of corporate-style public art. It also has more than 300 meters of waterfront space for bars and restaurants—something of a rarity in Singapore.

When the mall officially opened that next day, even more people showed up for the event, which was replete with faux Singapore traffic wardens blowing whistles and holding signs reading SHOP!

By now, at least, the scaffolding and heavy equipment were gone and the floors were so well-buffed they were slippery. While the chances of bodily injury were slightly less than the day before, there were still very few stores open. (The actual grand opening is in December.)

Singapore is known the world over for its shopping malls—it has more than 150 air-conditioned palaces of commerce—so any late arrivals had better be able to catch the public’s attention. Judging from the gawkers during the mid-Autumn Lantern Festival weekend this October, the largely unopened Vivo City passed the first test.

Singapore may have raised shopping to an art-form, but it isn’t the only place in Asia where retail properties are drawing interest. In Hong Kong—where space trades at even more of a premium—a very different kind of mall has sprung up, almost the opposite of the sprawling Vivo City.

In neighborhoods like Causeway Bay and Mongkok, vertical malls have clicked with shoppers. Borrowing one page from 1980s Tokyo and another page from the influx of big-city malls in the US, the malls are tall filing cabinets of small, entrepreneurial shops, karaoke bars and restaurants—many of which have reportedly been forced off the street level by high rents.

Property players in the city are increasingly seeing that their high-rise real estate can be even more profitable as retail. For example, Goodwin Gaw, the Hong Kong-based investor who bought the Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles for $10 million and turned it into a premier nightspot, is currently converting an office block into one of these malls.

According to a story in the International Herald Tribune, the developers were offered $25.6 million for the project halfway through the renovation and conversion, but they are seeing it through to completion. “We want to make this a destination,” said one of the company’s project directors.

Whether it’s a half-completed mall in the shadow of Singapore’s Mount Faber, a converted office block in the Mid-Levels of Hong Kong or a high-class shopping destination in the Aoyama district of Tokyo, Asian retail is becoming a destination again—thanks, in large part, to the growing strength of the Asian economies and the increased buying power of the local consumer. As firms continue to scour the region for deals, they would do well to keep the local shopping habits in mind.