This month, Saigon Centre, Vietnam’s first mixed-use shopping mall, opened its doors for the first time in Ho Chi Minh City amid great anticipation among the waiting public. With malls being a relatively new phenomenon in Vietnam, it got me thinking about the history of malls and how they’ve evolved.
You can be excused for thinking malls, and the shopping experience we have inside them is purely an American creation. In Australia, where I’m from, Queenslanders unwittingly pronounce the word almost as Americans do, such has been the influence of American culture on our language and society. Asia too has openly embraced mall culture. Malls have become nowhere more ubiquitous than in the Philippines, Thailand and Hong Kong where it seems every road or highway leads to a mall. The evolution of malls as we’ve come to know them has been a long time in the making with a history that goes way back.
While Western shopping tradition owes much to Roman and Greek markets and later the 19th-century department store, the etymology of the word mall traces back to a rather unlikely root. In the 16th and 17th centuries, a stick and ball game by the Italian name of Pallamaglio found its way onto the streets of London. Literally meaning mallet ball, the word Pallamaglio itself derives from the Latin words palla and malleus. In English, that is ball and maul, or a word that you’re perhaps more familiar with a mallet.
So what’s the connection between a game that resembles croquet and shopping in a mall?
Anyone who has played the original version of the game Monopoly will be familiar with the property card called Pall Mall pronounced pell-mell, which is of course named after the famous street in Westminster in London. Evidently, sometime in the early to mid-17th century, a Frenchman laid out a court for playing a game that became known in English as pall-mall. As London developed, sometime in the 18th century, a new street was paved over the original court, and it eventually filled up with shops and gentlemen’s clubs and became famous as a shopping street. Hence, the connection between shopping and mall.
100 years of “planned” shopping
Coincidently, as Vietnam opens its latest high-end luxury mall in Ho Chi Minh City this month, it’s exactly 100 years since Market Square in Lake Forest, Illinois opened, recognised as the first planned shopping centre in the US.
In a recent article questioning whether malls are dying or simply just changing in the US, where a new mall hasn’t been built since 2007, sociologist David Roelfs, from the University of Louisville, says that the 1950s and 1960s were all about the desire for the modern. The newness of malls gave them the edge over old downtown shopping precincts and open-air shopping centres. They were sleek, shiny and new and provided everything shoppers needed under the one roof for the first time.
Anyone familiar with Vietnam will be able to relate to this as the country races at unprecedented speed to develop and modernise. It has a fervent desire to be seen by its neighbours, and the world, as “modern”. It’s almost as though one can’t go anywhere without reference to something being modern or not. Advertising campaigns here push everything from FMCGs to real estate promoting the glitz and glamour of big city life in the 21st century where everything has to be the latest.
Foreign investors recognise the potential spending power of the population here in Vietnam too. GDP grew 6.68% in 2015, and the median age is estimated to be around 29 years old. FDI totalled USD22.76 billion in 2015 – up 12.5% compared to 2014. Takashimaya, the famous Japanese department store, has tipped in USD32 million as investment capital for its new store in Saigon Centre, its third outside of Japan behind Singapore and Shanghai with a fourth in Bangkok planned for 2017. They clearly see something.
At a press conference held on Monday 1st August for the opening of Saigon Centre, Mr Hideyuki Yamamoto, the Representative Director of Takashimaya Vietnam said, “We see great potential in Vietnam and its future development. Household incomes are increasing, so we’re always planning for development here and keeping an eye on consumer behaviour in Vietnam.” When asked what differences, if any, there were between Takashimaya in Ho Chi Minh City and the other Takashimaya stores abroad, Mr Yamamoto said that the basic concept is the same, but the company is always thinking about the customer in each particular market. “We want to provide unique experiences for shoppers”, he said, “One example is that Saigon Centre has early education enrichment courses for children.” Currently, no other mall in Vietnam offers this.
Indeed, creating a positive experience for shoppers is nothing new for those who invest in and construct malls. The original idea behind the mall concept was that shoppers could access everything they wanted in the one place making it more efficient with less need to drive the car between suburban shops. These days, mall owners attempt to take the shopping experience to another level. Keppel Land, the property arm of one of Singapore’s largest multinational groups Keppel Group which hold a 45.3% stake in Saigon Centre, has created what it says is “a multi-sensory experience for customers.”
One of the ways Keppel Land hopes to achieve this is by infusing the mall with a special aroma called “Fine Fragrance” which is exclusive to Saigon Centre. They also hope to provide visitors with a “thoughtful shopping experience” by offering complimentary phone chargers, safety boxes, strollers and wheelchairs. Keeping shoppers in malls longer increases the likelihood of them spending their money.
The Gruen Transfer
In a cruel twist of irony, the brainchild behind the modern day mall, Victor Gruen, unwillingly had his name given to the theory that explains consumer behaviour where people stop shopping for something in particular and start shopping for something in general. Have you ever gone to the supermarket or mall with the intention of buying some bananas and a carton of milk but walked out with a microwave oven? You know what I mean. This “transfer” is known as the Gruen Transfer, and malls use it to great effect. Stores create eye-catching displays, carefully laid-out floor plans and map out illogical shopping routes that require shoppers to cover the maximum amount of space and view the maximum number of items for sale. This is the antithesis to what Gruen strived for when he designed Southdale Centre mall, which opened in Minnesota in 1956 and remains the oldest fully enclosed, climate-controlled mall in the US. He wanted the experience to be efficient but at the same time an opportunity for people to socialise, not confuse them. However, according to Roelfs, malls quickly “morphed into a consumerist venue” and became “places where people went to be seen in the act of conspicuous consumption” rather than to build healthy relationships with others. This is true in Vietnam where one gets the feeling that sometimes people just want to be seen in malls with designer store shopping bags or they simply want to create a Facebook update with a picture from in front of a designer store without actually going into it.
Since the 1990s, the number of people visiting malls in the US has dropped to the point where some reports say that just 80% of malls are “healthy” – down from 94% in 2006. According to another sociologist George Ritzer, the decline in a healthy mall culture in the US isn’t because consumption is going down. “Consumption is going up; we’re consuming differently in different places.” Malls are becoming more complexes for entertainment as consumers are continually looking for new experiences especially since online shopping means people can purchase their favourite brands from the comfort of their living room without the hassle of getting to a mall and fighting their way through a crowd of people.
As a result, developers like Keppel Land are turning away from the traditional mall model that Baby Boomers and Gen Xers are more accustomed to and moving towards mixed-use complexes. Saigon Centre retains the traditional anchor outlet that aims to draw customers into the complex along with luxury international fashion brands, but it also has 50 restaurants, cafes and kiosks including a Japanese food village with seven supposedly authentic Japanese restaurants.
Keppel Land is obviously aware that the average annual income in Vietnam stands at around USD1,800 which means many of the items for sale in the mall will be out of reach for most Vietnamese. Hence, there has been an attempt at creating a space that everyone might enjoy regardless of income and where at least there might be food options that everyone can afford. Families with young children are catered for with an edutainment centre and early educational enrichment courses. The traditional atrium is there – a hallmark of Gruen’s design – but there are also plans for a rooftop garden where shoppers can relax, which should be ready by the end of 2017. The complex, once complete, will also have 44,000 Sq. of office space and 195 luxury-serviced apartments.
Is cheap the best?
But the question remains. With other shopping malls recently opened around Vietnam, which on any given day look mostly empty, will malls take hold in this country where the overwhelming mindset that prevails still is “cheap is best”? Mall developers and owners here are taking a punt on the theory that if they can capture people’s time, then they will win their wallets too, eventually. Only time and an increase in GDP will tell. Meanwhile, it appears that mall design is harking back to the original concept of creating an environment where the community might gather. A place where people might mingle and enjoy each other’s company. Where families wealthy or not can come together, escape the tropical elements and chaos on the streets and feel like a participant rather than a spectator in a country where the speed of development can sometimes leave one feeling left behind.
I wonder what Gruen would be thinking?