Call of the mall


As customers return, a metamorphosis is happening. Across the country, shops are reimagining sales techniques, premium spaces are opening up, and open air is getting a fillip

As a teenager, I often teased my dad about how he shopped at a mall: he would go in with a list of things to buy (in order of priority) and visit only those stores. There was no window shopping; even dinner was slotted into this schedule. Fast forward to now and, in a post-Covid world, I am doing exactly the same. The couple of times I have been to Phoenix MarketCity, Chennai, I spent less than an hour inside, buying nothing but what I needed.

This is the new normal across the country. Where once we loitered and racked up our daily Fitbit step count, the atmosphere in malls now is pure business. Contactless car parking, UV bag scanners, sanitisation stations and temperature checks are par for the course. Every industry has been forced to adapt in order to survive the pandemic, and the retail sector, including mall promoters, is no different. Kumar Rajagopalan, CEO of the Retailers Association of India, says, “It is similar to the time when malls were new; customers had to be attracted with different promotions.”

Amitabh Taneja, Chairman, Shopping Centres Association of India, says that the collective has been placing demands to the government to give a boost to the retail industry. “We’ve asked that financial institutions consider a moratorium period; a one-time loan restructuring with lower rates of interest for organised retail; short-term financing options; and GST rebates, among other things,” he explains. He adds that local and state governments can further help them bounce back by relaxing state duties and taxes, waiving licensing fee and offering fixed electricity charges.

Staff at DLF Emporio and The Chanakya  

Recent surveys, including one by multinational services network Deloitte, indicate that the future lies in malls becoming mixed-use projects, with “strong leisure and entertainment offerings that will help people find the social interaction they crave, especially now”. Food is also poised to become a game changer, since dining out appeals to all customer segments and cannot be replicated online. However, the next generation of food options will look beyond food courts to innovations such as “food halls featuring rising chefs or higher-profile restaurants clustered in common areas”.

On store design

  • Ashiesh Shah, architect-interior designer
  • “While most retail is happening online, brick and mortar will evolve. It is tough to shop luxury — suits for men or bridal lehengas — online. I think standalone stores will make a strong comeback. Stores that are larger, with more floor space and higher ceilings, will see a faster entry into the system.”
  • “I would rather go to a standalone store than a mall. In the former, I know footfalls won’t be crazy for no reason and that you can out the random window shopper.”
  • “In stores, ventilation is really important, with lots of natural light and as many open windows as you can manage. Store design should also look at quick and easy ways to incorporate and hide sanitisers, so it doesn’t become an eyesore. I would also make spaces more lively and open, rather than dark and claustrophobic.”

Meanwhile, closer home, preparing for customers has been a mammoth task. Even as footfalls across malls hover around the 30% mark, daily/weekly operational costs have gone up by over 20%. Investment in tech and equipment, including apps and UV scanners, is as high as ₹50 lakh per property. But Rajendra Kalkar, President (West) – Phoenix Mills Ltd, explains that this investment is crucial, as their first goal is confidence building. “Once people are comfortable with the idea of being in a mall, we will expand our offerings,” he says. This will include open-air shopping options, which seems to be the way forward. On the up side, as commercial space frees up (because of rents and other factors), more stores are opening. Uniqlo India just launched two outlets — at DLF Avenue, Saket, and Vegas Mall, Dwaraka.

The upcoming festive season will be crucial for malls to make up for their losses. The décor is already on point to tempt family selfies — such as a 50-foot diya in Phoenix MarketCity’s central atrium — but what else can we expect? Team Weekend travels across cities to find out how malls are faring, what people are buying, and if open-air shopping is winning over new customers.

A 50-foot diya in Phoenix MarketCity, Chennai

A 50-foot diya in Phoenix MarketCity, Chennai  

Chennai

When Express Avenue opened doors on September 1, 210 of its 220 stores welcomed customers. Chief Revenue Officer Munish Khanna credits this to their waiving entire rentals during lockdown (only common area maintenance costs were paid). “Now we have based rentals on sales percentages: if a store does 50% of the sales they did in October 2019, they can pay 50% of their rent,” he explains. As for footfalls, malls are seeing an upward trend week on week. At VR Chennai, Ranjana Ramakrishnan, GM – Marketing, says, “Genuine shoppers are what footfalls are about and we are seeing healthy trading densities that will likely improve with the onset of the festive season.”

Phoenix MarketCity and Palladium, meanwhile, still have about half of their stores shut. (Across the board, Phoenix properties have offered a 30% waiver on rent.) But on the bright side, Pooja Patti, Centre Director, says that new stores — Birkenstock, Seiko, Mad over Donuts, OnePlus — are set to open in the coming weeks. There is an ongoing electronics and home décor fest till the end of October, with brands like Reliance Digital, Croma, Poorvika, HP, Home Centre and Homestop, offering discounts of up to 60% and vouchers worth ₹2,000 on a purchase of ₹10,000.

Store assistants are also taking on new roles. For instance, at Express Avenue’s Montblanc, the staff is giving virtual tours. As for tech, EA has invested in temperature-monitoring cameras; Phoenix has fired up their NHance app with directions to prevent people wandering aimlessly in search of stores; and Forum Vijaya Mall asks visitors to book a time slot via their social media handles or websites.

Bengaluru

A visit to a mall after four months felt normal, and yet not. Talking points between my brother and I, as we went to 1 MG Road, included avoiding the elevator, using our feet to open doors and refusing clothing trials at H&M.

Gajendra Singh Rathore, Senior Centre Director, Phoenix MarketCity, says that since July there has been a decent growth in footfall — about 8,000 on weekdays and double that on weekends (36% of what it was last year). Interestingly, consumption has grown over 55% of what it was last year, with some categories like electronics and home furnishings recording higher sales. Their current offerings include home deliveries, agents for tele-shopping, and curbside pickup. Performances by bands are being planned too. Performances by bands (within government limitations for social distancing) are being planned too.

However, Uday Garudachar, who owns the Garuda mall chain — three in the city and one in Mysuru — has a different story to tell. From a weekday footfall of around 30,000, it is down to 3,000 a day. He adds that long-time tenants are unable to pay rent. “We haven’t given any concession and have not spoken about this at length yet. It is a tough situation all around,” he says. Despite these worries, there seems to be no concrete plan either for the long-term or festive season. Comparatively, shops on MG Road are doing better, says Bhoopalam P Srinath, president, Bangalore Trades Association, which represents about 120 stores there. “Namma Metro restarting has also contributed to business,” he adds.

— Aparna Narrain

Curbside pickup at Phoenix, Bengaluru

Curbside pickup at Phoenix, Bengaluru  

Hyderabad

“As an IT hub, Hyderabad has made a fairly easy transition to the online retail space,” says Kabeer Arora, architect and researcher for Hyderabad Urban Labs. The GVK One Mall in Banjara Hills, for instance, is leveraging WhatsApp for a contactless shopping experience. Assistant marketing manager Gerald Mathew says that apart from temperature checks and sanitisation of frequently-touched surfaces, “we have a Covid-19 response team [to spring into action is someone exhibits symptoms]”. When it comes to working with their retailers, he says they “spoke with them individually and offered each certain waivers. We have to support the brands and the flea market owners”.

Malls in outskirts areas such as DSL Virtue Mall, Uppal are enjoying a considerable increase in footfall. Mall manager Shahansha N says, “We employ a QR code system for shopping so that people don’t feel anxious spending too much time out of their homes. Most of our stores are anchor stores so this is easily handled as most people who shop here know what they want.” Sarath City Capital Mall, which is a sprawling 27,00,000 square feet across eight floors, has opened in a phased manner. However, they have not seen as much footfall as other malls such as GVK One, aside from the food court.

— Divya Kala Bhavani

On store design

  • Haroon Mohammed, architect and editor @design.kerala (Instagram)
  • “Post Covid, retail design would take more of an experiential approach. With restrictions on touch and trials, stores need to create immersive experiences to draw in customers. This could be done through the use of AR or VR as well as creating exciting displays in the store. Ensuring good ventilation and light, creativity in terms of displaying products and good digital content are the way forward.”
  • “So if we narrow it down, we are not only trying to emphasise on the users’ attention to the product but also selling ‘safety’. Assurance of cleanliness and visible hygiene should be abundantly communicated. Possibly incorporate health and safety advisors into the design process.”

Delhi

Malls in Delhi opened in early June, giving them more time to prepare for the upcoming festive season. At DLF Emporio and The Chanakya, an omni-channel approach has been implemented. Prashant Gaurav Gupta, VP & Head, DLF Luxury Malls, says, “More than ever, it is imperative to maintain exclusivity to retain the fundamental role of luxury and balance it with the new ‘phygital’ experience, by taking the in-store experience online and the online experience in-store.” The most popular has been their on-call personal shopper for gift shopping, where customers browse via video call and then pick up their purchases.

Select Citywalk was open through the lockdown for essential commodities, says Yogeshwar Sharma, Executive Director & CEO. “Customers ordered [via WhatsApp] from our digital catalogue, featuring the latest from beauty, home, lifestyle and fashion brands, and got them home-delivered,” he says. A festive catalogue is coming up soon. They have also added concierge service and personal shoppers.

Meanwhile, DLF is partnering with FDCI to host the first-ever online Lotus Makeup India Fashion Week. “We have also partnered with top Bollywood celebrity stylists Aki Narula, Astha Sharma and Mohit Rai for one-on-one appointments [October 19-21],” says Gupta. Customers can register on dlfemporio.com.

— Sunalini Mathew

Westside near Kala Ghoda in Mumbai

Westside near Kala Ghoda in Mumbai  

Mumbai

There seems to be a sharp divide between malls in South Mumbai (mostly deserted as they draw office goers and tourists) and those in the suburbs (where millennials and Gen Z are daring to step out). “Consumer behaviour has changed and though fear is still a factor, we are getting serious buyers now, so the conversion rate is high,” says Mukesh Kumar, CEO, Infiniti Mall, popular with the celebrity crowd.

At Growel’s 1O1 Mall, facilities like live shopping services and ‘Mall on Wheels’ — where a selection of brands are brought to housing societies — have been introduced. Additionally, it is also organising pop-ups for customers who are apprehensive of stepping inside stores. “About 70% of business is coming from online channels, with deliveries happening through mall stores. This reinstates the fact that omnichannel as a trend is here to stay,” says Sachin Dhanawade, COO – Retail & Real Estate, Grauer & Weil (India) Ltd, which operates the mall.

— Lalatendu Mishra

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