‘‘All that Glitters...’’

The poor and marginalised  people living in shanties and slums in metros and growing cities are being forcibly evicted to make room for malls at a time when most malls are finding it difficult to have reasonable return. Not all evictions are reported in the mainstream media though many of the dazzling plazas are already on death bed.

Leaving aside a few malls of Gurgaon, the picture is downbeat in India. The 15-football-filed big Phoenix Mall in Kurla, Mumbai has one-third of the shops lying vacant. Many builders have deferred plans to construct new malls. Shopkeepers are seeking 1-year leases instead of 7-year leases that was the norm till recently. Many are shifting from high- to low rental malls. Property Consultant Cushman and Wakefield says that one-fourth shops are lying vacant in malls of Ahmedabad, Pune and New Delhi.

The picture is mixed at the global level. Cities like Yangon, Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Sao Palo and Melbourne are witnessing successes. But some, at least, are in deep trouble in China. The New South China Mall in the city of Dongguan, which opened in 2005, stands empty with 99 per cent of its shops having remained unleased and attractions including a 553-metre indoor and outdoor roller coaster standing idle. It was designed to attract an average of more than 70,000 visitors a day but has less than a dozen shops in its 9.6million sq ft of floor space. A report by CNN Money says that malls have seen a decline in the US in the last two decades after their heyday in the eighties.

The reason for downbeat assessment of malls in India appears to be competition. Ten years ago shoppers from Delhi would drive to Gurgaon to shop for international brands in air-conditioned comfort. Since them many new malls have come up not only in Gurgaon but also within Delhi and also in surrounding areas such as Faridabad, Vaishali and NOIDA. This has led to dispersal of customers and many malls of Gurgaon are in survival crisis today. Recession has made things worse. Customers prefer to buy cheap from the regular stores. The recession seems to have hit working women more hard in the United States. Shopping in the malls is especially convenient for working women who have little time to visit a number of stores spread across the town. Therefore, less jobs for working women is translating into less incomes for the malls.

Another danger looming before the malls is that of multi-brand FDI in retail. Most malls have one big store that attracts the customers. WalMart and Carrefour prefer to set themselves up in standalone buildings. FDI in retail may deprive the malls of these 'anchor' stores. Multi-brand FDI outlets will draw the customers away from the anchor stores located in the malls.

Despite global downturn, the concept of mall is there to stay. People often buy unwanted things in the allurement of the malls. This is being considered as a disease and named 'shopaholism'. The customer attains a temporary high having bought an item of international brand as if he has conquered the world. But, of course, the high does not last. It requires repeated bouts of buying yet more of yet more expensive items which inevitably leads to a mental as well as financial collapse except for the richest. Needless to say such buying is a social waste.

Then there is the problem of environment. Malls consume large amounts of electricity in air-conditioning and lighting. Many have walls of glass that require more air-conditioning. Often they do not have sun roofs that would allow natural light to come in. At the least, malls should be required to pay 4 times the normal rate of electricity during peak hours to prod them to conserve energy. Come what may the government is in favour of more malls.

Vol. 45, No. 29, January 27- Feb 2, 2013

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