Staying Afloat in a Shopper's Paradise

Crowds thronged VivoCity when they first opened

Recently, quite a few shopping centres in Singapore seem to be left behind in the retail race despite our buoyant economy. Poor customer traffic, contractual spats, tenants going on "strike", empty shop spaces, decay and disrepair seem to be some of their common woes.

Some are new and spanking. They include Dhoby Xchange, which is strategically located next to the Dhoby Ghaut MRT Station yet attracting hardly a soul. Another recent case is an unnamed shopping mall at Commonwealth Market (to be renamed Queenspoint) which apparently ran afoul of the law. Its owners Pagar Park did not have approval to sub-let its spaces but still went ahead, with 70% of its 150 retail outlets taken up. Now it is tangled in a messy litigation case involving multiple parties including the Singapore Land Authority.

Others have been around for longer like Liang Court, Central Mall, as well as Orchard Road's Far East Shopping Centre, Orchard Towers and Orchard Emerald. Most would agree that these are faltering at best and hardly in the radar screen of shopaholics. Even the crowds at the almighty VivoCity - Singapore's largest mall with one million square feet of retail space - are starting to thin barely 6 months after its opening.

Why do some malls fail while others survive and even thrive? Are there lessons that we can learn from the raving successes of malls like Parco Bugis Junction, Ngee Ann City and the evergreen Plaza Singapura?

First, you need to advertise and promote your mall aggressively. Sounds pretty obvious? Well, it isn't just about sales all year round, but special tie-ups, loyalty programmes, festive deals, lucky draws, mall-wide promotions and other specials to attract the finicky consumer dollar. In the dog-eat-dog world of retailing, its all about generating the greatest top-of-mind-recall and mindshare as shopping tend to be a rather impromptu, spur-of-the-moment decision.

Second, you need to have a certain theme that can be easily identified with. What is your mall's unique selling proposition? Convenience? Hip and funky stores (Eg Heeren)? Family friendliness (Eg Ngee Ann City and Raffles City)? Music and private schools (Plaza Singapura)?

Third, you need to collaborate with your tenants on mutually beneficial activities. Develop joint promotions and activities that boost customer traffic and earnings. Parco Bugis Junction does this exceedingly well, and have a performance-based element in their monthly rentals. This incentivises both landlord and tenant to work hard in attracting customers.

Fourth, you need to frequently organise mall events. Theme them according to the festive seasons - Christmas, Chinese New Year, Deepavali, National Day, School Holidays etc. You will be surprised at how effective meet and greet sessions with Mickey Mouse or Pokemon are in attracting the masses!

Fifth, you need to have the right tenant mix, especially good anchor tenants that are top draws. Ever since Daimaru closed down at Liang Court, business just didn't seem the same anymore. Similarly, the forgotten malls of Orchard Road above lack any significant retailers that can generate mass traffic.

Finally, I always believe that there should be fairness and equity in any contractual dealing between landlord and tenant. Instead of calling the lawyers at the first signs of trouble, landlords should try to work out any teething issues with their tenants first. A little bit of give and take never hurts anybody. In the wise words of Mahatma Gandhi: "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind".

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