In 2014 I relocated from Sydney to take up employment with an architecture practice in Shanghai, China. In the following 3 years I spent much time designing mainly retail projects in China, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, and as one does, spent considerable time in Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and other Asian nations for various work-related reasons. There is obviously a considerable difference in how Asian and Australian retail developments are shaped by the culture within which they sit, along with, at times, some surprising similarities. Some of my observations from this pretty exciting part of my life are the gist of this article, along with the caveat that due to my time spent in Shanghai, it is largely China-centric.

Cultural and socio-economic differences between Asia and Australia account for much of how retail centres take shape and the experiences they offer. China and most of Asia’s high-density living, coupled with (at times ludicrously) expensive land prices account for their tendency to build vertical mixed-use shopping centre developments, or vertical cities if you will. Australia’s urban sprawl means the country has the propensity to plan outwards, creating spread-out shopping complexes that act as a destination for suburban residents to gather; there is a much lower population density and cheaper land so we can afford to build horizontal centres between single and three stories in height with occasionally some cinemas and possibly other entertainment functions above that to add some excitement to the mix. We are, as of yet, exceedingly reliant on car transport, hence we still tend towards the aircraft carrier in a sea of asphalt parking model; by comparison increased reliance on public transport and higher densities tend to result in retail centres above some form of transport hub in most Asian circumstances, although this is by no means the only model.

Despite these differences, there is ample opportunity for the beneficial cross cultivation of Australian and Asian retail design to be adopted by the other. Having said this, without understanding the circumstances that drive design forms in different environments, the opportunity to make a mess of such concepts is dangerously high.

As a precursor to all of this, one of the first assumptions to throw away is the concept of an overall “Asian” retail environment. Every country in Asia is as unique from each other as Australia is from China, with their own distinct cultures, politics, socio-economic circumstances and just about every other social indicator possible. Japan is a completely different culture to China; Singapore is a different (although increasingly similar) culture to China, as is Hong Kong. All Asian cultures are unique; we can draw parallels and similarities between them, but they are not the same. Japan, in particular, has parallels in design parameters (high density, building up, transport-oriented developments), but a different way of life to, say, China and as such how the Japanese use retail centres, what they shop for and why is not the same. As my time was spent very largely in China, this is reflected heavily in my experiences written about here.

Chinese, Hong Kong and Singaporean cultures appear to have a tendency to shop for the purpose of buying goods, rather than external experiential reasons – the buying of stuff is the experience. This market still very much has a preference for products (particularly fashion) from Europe due to a perception of exclusivity, prestige and cache; the Chanel handbag is direct proof of your ability to afford it! Even if you can’t! Australian shopping centres lean towards national chain stores with a smattering of some international offerings. Chinese shopping centres will showcase brands such as Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Balmain, Burberry and so on. European luxury brands are at street level with second and third tier luxury and/or casual apparel brands on the subsequent first and second floors. In a not insubstantial number of cases (particularly in China), the appropriateness of such brands in the local market catchment is considered less relevant than the prestige of them being there, leading to a vexing sameness across retail offerings which seems at odds with the diversity and richness of the culture surrounding the centre. Often paired with pristine white finishes, glossy surfaces and bright, uniform lighting, the result is somewhat of a showroom effect where everything looks too good to touch and seems almost only for display purposes.

The iAPM Mall, which was basically my local in China, is characterised by an enormous atrium, which, while better curated than most, is often a vast empty space; even when there are functions or events there is a danger of it being swamped by the enormity of their venue. Luxury stores gathered around the edges of this vast atrium makes for a beautiful space that feels somewhat devoid of life. Perhaps the giant unused space is there to further the idea of luxury but between the cost of land and the sparse population of customers, it is hard to see the economic benefit if any. None of this takes away from the fact that iAPM is a beautiful building; it just seems to run the danger of overwhelming its customers.

This approach to retail design in Asia, and particularly mainland China is becoming increasingly questioned by younger customers. China has one of the fastest growing middle classes in the world. Young people are becoming tired of the constant barrage of conspicuous consumption and are starting to seek “moments” rather than “stuff” on which to spend their discretionary income. While this behaviour is in its early stages, addressing this change in consumer attitude is seen as a way of being the point of difference between one retail experience and the one next door (often literally). New World Development was amongst the first to acknowledge this trend with their K11 Art Malls. K11 Shanghai has a very serious art gallery as an integral part of its offer, and amongst other constant events, ran a Monet exhibition in 2014. While competitors questioned the benefit of such an event there is little doubt that the foot traffic through the centre during this period grew phenomenally. The company also host a variety of cultural events in their shopping centres such as fashion shows, bands and other art exhibitions. Similar to this, Parkview Green in Beijing appears, at times, to be more public art gallery than retail mall, in a rather pleasant way notwithstanding.

What we do well in Australia is to judge the appropriate scale and character for the target customers of our shopping centres. There is a fine balance between space and crowdedness that creates buzz and excitement; people are attracted to people, which contributes greatly to the vibrant ambience of the best shopping centres in Australia. The best of our centres manage to feel busy when there aren’t huge crowds, but not claustrophobic when there are. We have largely eschewed the “centre court” for smaller more diverse spaces to offer customers a range of experiences rather than the dog and pony show from years ago.

Australia seems to be leading the way in terms of experiential shopping. For a small and dispersed population, we have an abundance of retail offers, both in shopping centres and in urban hubs, hence the desire to provide a unique experience. Many Asian cultures have the tendency to attract customers due to product; conversely, many Australians are drawn to the shopping centre for experiences. Australian centres have grown past thinking a cinema and a restaurant defines an entertainment offer, and are increasingly turning to seasonal or unique events and genuine environmental experiences rather than a couple of restaurants at the entry. Entertainment offers extend beyond the cinemas, with increasing attention towards wellbeing and health pop-up stores and curated experiences to bring excitement to customers – there is something new each time you visit, so there is a reason to come back. As of yet, this approach is not gaining much traction in Asian markets with most concepts looking fairly half-hearted in execution, so it is a field in which Australia has something to offer for the rest of our region, if not the rest of the world.

Asian retail malls have always had extensive food and beverage offers within retail centres, being home to restaurants usually located on their top floors, often several top floors. Most Asian cultures have a huge emphasis on food, communally and socially; as a family event. The restaurants within retail centres attract customers from business, family, friends; all social activities are enhanced by dining experiences. While this creates a degree of buzz and excitement the restaurants are invariably on the uppermost floors, usually totally unaccompanied by any other form of retail offering. This segregation, along with a tendency for the tenancies to be shut off from the public space, with the kitchens hidden somewhere out the back, results in an absence of food theatre and any form of ambience or excitement in the mall. More than likely this results in poor cross shopping between dining and retailers. Australia has traditionally gravitated towards the “food court” dining experience, however it is probably safe to say that the traditional food court is on shaky ground with increasing numbers of customers looking for, and expecting a more sophisticated offer, with the “café court” rapidly supplanting the ring of fast food take away stores around a sea of seats and tables. Again, as Asian customers increasingly supplant consumption with experience, our approach towards food in centres could be exactly what these people will be looking for.

While the food and beverage options are in a sense, “world class”, often the offerings are not very diverse, consisting of large, enclosed restaurants, maybe a Pizza/Italian/possibly a steakhouse restaurant, sometimes even Mexican. Australia offers a different kind of food and beverage experience, often with an emphasis on the freshness and healthiness of the produce available, always with a range of cuisines represented. Having said this, there is a tendency towards the usual range of national chains which, while are mostly a good offer, on their own don’t give any particular centre an advantage over another in terms of the hunter-gatherer’s delight in seeking out what is new and unique. Food culture in Asia is huge, and the sheer volume and quality of food available might be an indicator of where we might be looking, in future, to add the experiences people seek to augment their retail visits.

Perhaps the most fundamental general difference is that almost all Asian malls do not rely upon majors for their foot traffic. Malls in China and most other countries might have a supermarket, invariably buried in the basement for convenience to transport, but generally speaking, with the exception of an occasional Lang Crawford, or a state-owned department store which may act as a detractor rather than an anchor, there is nothing analogous to what we would describe as a major store. They have had to learn to use other methods of driving foot traffic; certainly, any Apple Store, considered a must in any mall above a suburban level will be packed at all times, along with H&M and Uniqlo and a smattering of others. In a retail environment where the traditional role of the major anchors is coming under pressure, here, there are undoubtedly lessons to be learnt about how to attract customers and encourage their flow around the retail space.

As we continue to discuss the demise of the private car in favour of a shared system of some sort, along with the increasing urbanisation of our major cities, we are moving into a future environment increasingly resembling Asian cities. We are progressively moving into apartments, price and affordability are driving us towards smaller spaces less conducive to home entertaining and as a result, those retail experiences anticipating the social changes that will come from this will be ahead, and may benefit from studying the various Asian models for a forward look at centres with a huge emphasis on dining and a very small emphasis on traditional retailers. As successive generations of young Asians continue to grow away from the clichéd desire for luxury goods and towards life experience, tapping into our ability to go beyond the traditional shopping mall typology and seek out a way of creating the environment for the Instagram moment may prove to be what will give Asian developers the advantage over the huge glossy white spaceship next door.

This article was originally published in the May 2018 edition of Shopping Centre News.

Did you enjoy this article?