Saturday, May 7, 2011


Back in the 1960s, people went to a fresh market or grocery store in their neighbourhood for food and day-to-day goods.

Then came a big boom of air-conditioned shopping centres in the '80s. People then customarily travelled to a commercial area downtown and flocked to the vertical plaza for almost anything their lives may have required, be it a couple of hours at a movie, expensive jewellery, brand-name fashion items, stationery items or even a bottle of shampoo.

These mega-size shopping arcades, equipped with world-class department stores, restaurants, banks, cinemas, bowling alleys, furniture outlets, beauty salons and huge supermarkets, to name just a few, seemed to have successfully catered to consumers' needs with their ''all-under-one-roof'' concept.

Yet, the mushrooming of boutique-style strip malls in Bangkok's residential areas in recent years may now be suggesting that bigger is not necessarily better. preferable

Labelled ''community malls'', ''neighbourhood shopping centres'' or ''retail parks'', these new-era shopping venues, which have become more and more popular with urbanites, basically offer a variety of services and goods that cater to modern lifestyles. You may find among a collection of chic eateries and fast-food joints, a gourmet food market, pet salon, kids' gym, up-market spa and one-of-a-kind concept stores.

The soon-to-open Nawamin Festival Walk features an American country farmhouse setting and boasts over 80 shops and restaurants.

In Bangkok, a community mall may occupy a small or large plot of land, but among the distinguishable characteristics they all share are that they are set horizontally and they usually boast a spectacular design, either with a futuristic structure, breath-taking landscape or state-of-the-art architectural installations. As absurd as it may sound, the visitors' retail mood is supposedly boosted by the presence of old Greek windmill, a French Baroque dome, Roman corridors or an American silo.

Although there are more than 50 community malls in the 1,500-square kilometre city, their popularity doesn't seem to have faded. Consumers still find them a pleasant destination and land developers still see their future fortune blazing.

Reckoned as the pioneer in this area, Nopporn Witoonchart of Siam Future Development Plc launched his first community mall 18 years ago in Bang Bon district. From then, his company has introduced to Bangkokians almost 30 community malls and convenience centres including J Avenue Thong Lor, La Villa Phahon Yothin, Market Place Thonglo, The Avenue Chaeng Watthana Road, Piyarom Place, Nawamin City Avenue, Major Avenue Ratchayothin, Ekkamai Power Center and the soon-to-open Nawamin Festival Walk, which has been dubbed a ''leisure centre''.

Crystal Park, a popular shopping destination launched in 2009; Market Place Thonglo, the first stylish strip mall on the cosmopolitan Thong Lor Road; K-Village, a spacious al fresco retail park on Sukhumvit Soi 24.

Yet, the Siam Future CEO said what is regarded in the modern day as a ''neighbourhood shopping centre'' is, theoretically, no different from the community fresh market of the old days.

''In the past people saw the talad [fresh market] as a place to buy household necessities and to meet people. The talad was usually in the centre of the community and conveniently accessible.

''The community mall is the same concept, just with a different appearance. It looks more modern with proficient design, good hygiene standards and a neat arrangement of space. And what makes it different from a mainstream mall is that the community mall is located in a residential suburb and serving people in a community _ not tourists or office people,'' he said.

Nopporn noted that the opening of J Avenue Thong Lor, an ultra-chic neighbourhood shopping centre, in 2004 sent the popularity of community malls to its peak. Yet J Avenue wasn't the first retail centre that really ignited the craze.

''A year before, we opened Market Place Thonglo which actually was the starting point of Thong Lor's facelift. We launched the shopping centre after the economic crisis, when the rich and famous started to become entrepreneurs and opened small shops and eateries that represented their refined styles.

''After Thonglor Market Place, there were H1, Playground and J Avenue as well as other small artistic shops that nicely attracted the yuppy generation of consumers to the strip,'' Nopporn said.

''This group used to go to mainstream shopping centres downtown in the past. But as soon as the same products and services were offered to them in their own neighbourhood, they didn't want to go far away. This is how it should be _ household items should be available near home and should not require people to drive far away to get them.''

Among the newest addition to the city's community mall scene is the 450-million baht invested Park Lane Bangkok on Sukhumvit Soi 63. The commercial park on a six-rai plot of land boasts a neo-classical French architectural setting and features a range of restaurants, coffee shops, bakery houses and beauty parlours, a specialty bike shop and a Japanese supermarket.

''I'm not sure if I would call this a community mall. Since today the overall character community mall is no different than that of an ordinary shopping mall,'' said Park Lane Bangkok's project manager, Peerachai Poshyanonda.

However, he noted that one important thing that mainstream shopping malls have lacked _ especially at a time when it can take an hour to drive five kilometres and the fuel price has reached 44 baht per litre _ is convenience. And that's how a small retail centre in the city's outskirt can fill the gap.

''People's lifestyles are changing. One thing is that the fuel prices are getting higher. So, instead of going to a big shopping mall far away, many people head to the small mall in their neighbourhood or shop online.

''However, consumers today are very sophisticated and more interested in the quality of products than where the shop is located. So to say if the business of a community mall is good or not, it really depends on retailers.

''In our arcade, a small hair salon which is tucked in the back corner of the premises and occupies the cheapest unit, is one of the busiest shops because they always have great offers. Shoppers look for quality, so retailers have to find convergence. They have to be innovative and develop their own market, not just to watch the market otherwise they'll be another follower.''

According to Peerachai, whether it's a business in a community mall or big shopping centre, retailers have to find their own character. Some might have to offer accessibility, while some have to focus on their niche market.

''If it caters to families, it has to be convenient. If it's fashion, it must be characteristic,'' he said.

This conforms with Nopporn Witoonchart's view. The Siam Future CEO said the modernity of community malls is usually determined by the retailers.

''If you designed the space nicely but your tenants are the same old fast-food joints and ordinary shops, then your mall will look less attractive. But thanks to revolutionary shops and eateries that usually occupy most community mall nowadays _ for example, a boat noodle shop that serves prime-grade wagyu beef, a coffee shop with a European patisserie setting and an ice cream parlour that offers one-of-a-kind treats _ the smaller-scale shopping plaza is apparently seen at as an upper-market venue.''

Noppornalso said it's absolutely not true that the community mall today has lost its original purpose and is serving mainly the fashionable clientele who treat the place as a stage to express their modish lifestyle.

''The main target of community malls, regardless of how much the venues have attracted trendy-looking folks from across the city, is always the residents in the neighbourhood. You may see stylishly dressed people flocking J Avenue, because they are much easier to be spotted.

''But the majority of our customers are still families in the community. Almost 70% of J Avenue's sale volume comes from international housewives in the area,'' the land developer said.

Park Lane's Peerachai said that a community mall is just a well-managed compound of rental spaces. He is not concerned that the mall may wither due to an oversupply of such shopping facilities, as long as the tenants manage to develop according to the changing trends.

And locations _ including new residential districts on Kaset Navamin, Ram-intra and Ratchapruek roads _ are still opening up, according to Siam Future's Nopporn Witoonchart.

''As long as the city is expanding and condominiums are rising, there's still opportunities for community malls.''

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