By Sarawakian

Shopping Centres are no longer what they used to be. In my lifetime of over 50 years, I have seen how shopping centres have evolved into a social space and the centre of life in the 1990s. Yet since the millennium and even so since the Covid-19 pandemic, shopping centres have seriously become bland.

In Malaysia, we have all grown up with many shopping centres. Some would remember Ampang Park which opened in 1973. Today, this shopping centre is no more. Sungai Wang opened in 1977. The Mall in KL is now Sunway Putra. The Mall was well known since it opened in 1987. It used to go head-to-head with Subang Parade which opened in 1988 in terms of popularity. Of course, in Kuala Lumpur we had KL Plaza, Sungai Wang, BB Plaza, Campbell and Pertama Complex. In those days, it seemed cool to name your shopping centre with a ‘Plaza’ included.

In those days, events would attract you to take a bus or drive over to any one of them. How many of you remembered the ‘Floral Fest’ which had a competition amongst shopping centres. Each property would have extravagant floral installations of which, a majority would be live flowers. Cultural and product launches as well as meet the fans sessions were a norm.  Sungai Wang, The Mall and Subang Parade used to be the trio of shopping centres which would host those crowd pulling events. Eventually, Cheras Leisure Mall also joined the trio in 1994. Cheras Leisure Mall became known for their beautiful festive installations fronting their main entrance at the outdoor, their lantern making contests and their ability to bring Hong Kong Artists.

As we go through the 90s, Jaya Jusco started to make inroads and eventually had good traction with their department store and supermarkets. 1 Utama was basically powered by Jaya Jusco then as with IOI Mall in Puchong. Today, they have changed their name to Aeon. From the internet, Aeon has 28 shopping centres across Malaysia. Aeon Shopping Centres are only not available yet in Sabah, Kedah, Perlis, Terengganu and Pahang.

The larger shopping centres first appeared in Penang when Penang suddenly saw a plethora of shopping centre construction. The Megamall Penang still stands today. In the east coast, Berjaya Megamall set foot in Kuantan, Pahang. In Sabah, the 1 Borneo Hyper-mall in Kota Kinabalu attempted to be the mother of all shopping centres in terms of size. In Kuching, Vivacity Megamall recently joined the bandwagon in 2015.

In Klang Valley, the Midvalley Megamall opened in November 1997 following a themed shopping centre, Sunway Pyramid in July 1997. Sunway Pyramid has since expanded to be one of the 5 largest shopping centres in Malaysia alongside Berjaya Times Square, 1 Utama, MidValley Megamall and IOI City Mall. Kuala Lumpur welcomed the landmark Suria KLCC on 8th May 1998 which till today, still is the benchmark and icon for Malaysia’s shopping centre industry and tourist draw. Malaysia has also been given Johor Premium Outlets and Genting Premium Outlets from Simon’s of USA and thereafter, attracted the later creation of the Mitsui Outlet Park from Japan.

However, since 2019 and the Covid-19 years of 2020 till 2022, shopping habits have changed dramatically. Many people are no longer going to shopping centres as much as before. Shopping centres have started to lose their lustre. It is no longer exciting. Nothing seems different between one shopping centre to the othe; which also drove many to discover other options for retail therapy.

Online shopping is here to stay, regardless of what shopping centres or shops think. Cost of doing business has risen. There are options for retailers and shops to choose from other than shopping centres. Otherwise, we would not have heard or visited cafes and restaurants which are not located in shopping centres. Better ones exist outside the typical shopping centre as they have character. This is missing in many shopping centres.

Larger shopping centres who did well since the late 90s till today, will continue to have enough fuel to still get the crowds. However, I am sure that the crowds are no longer the same as what were. Would this last? It depends on how they differentiate themselves. We see the same shops in every shopping centre. The only difference is which has more shops, and which is larger. Being larger and with the most shops and variety does not guarantee visits or repeat consumption. Sales increase does not mean the transactions have increased. It could be a revision of pricing due to rising costs.

Smaller retail malls seem to gather better traction now with limited offerings but of better quality. They serve the community they are located in. Filling the needs and wants of that community. Somehow, the service of their staff is better. Perhaps it is due to the less stressful environment of a community centre. Perhaps people want more and are willing to go the extra mile. Supermarkets have now started to go smaller to get to the community easier. Jaya Grocer has done this and there could be a possibility that Village Grocer follows the same route; Aeon has already got Aeon MaxValu. Recently we have started to see NSK Grocer and TMG Plus around along with smaller supermarkets.

The population post Covid 19 has changed. Many are now smart device savvy with discounts, no fuss delivery, flexibility of payment and easy return policies attracting more conversions. Even the elderly shop online. There is no discrimination on price or value of the goods as online shopping takes a huge leap into the market share of physical shopping centres. Many have diverted their weekend and public holiday trips to shopping centres to instead travel to Perak, Penang and Melaka as domestic tourists. They do not go to shopping centres but to the streets and eat in Michelin rated establishments which are also not in shopping centres.

Shopping Centres are losing their lustre. I do not see the same crowd as before as today we have more shopping centres with the same brands. Zombie walkers can be seen as the common areas are filled but the cashier area seemed quiet.

Shopping centres must learn not to be arrogant and think everyone will lap up what is offered. Shoppers and visitors have no loyalty to a brand. To get one to buy would need more effort. A shopping centre must return to its roots. They should ask themselves if they have understood their role within the community. Otherwise, the future of street malls would be more enticing.