Wednesday, October 23

Kuching – a city of ‘dead malls walking’?

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I CAN still remember when Electra House at Power Street Kuching opened in 1965 – 54 years ago this year. It was the very first purpose-built shopping complex and housed almost everything you could want in one big three-storeyed building – from one of the earliest fast food restaurants (can’t recall if it was SugarBun, McD’s or a KFC!), to Ngui Kee department store, textile shops, record shop, photo shop, travel agencies, and souvenir outlets.

Then came Kuching Plaza and Sarawak Plaza, and then Riverside.

Then the shopping complex phenomenon took a bombastic boom and in less than 10 years, we have seen one by one opening up, each one even bigger and more attractive than the last! The last memorable big bang was Aeon Mall, which opened in April 2018 and has still managed to hold its novelty value for its customers 16 months on.

I have really lost count of the number of shopping complexes and malls that are now in existence in the greater Kuching area – by this I would geographically mean from Kuching city centre to Kota Samarahan, Matang, and Kota Sentosa. Let’s just guesstimate the total population for this area as roughly to be around one million, or slightly less.

While the pioneering Electra House held sway over its small captive audience of the late 1960s till the mid-1980s (the consumer base was still rather small and limited then – 150,000 to 200,000 at most), Kuching Plaza sort of complemented its existence, and even when Sarawak Plaza came into the mix, all was well as the city could actually support all three complexes, which catered to their own niche consuming public at the time. Electra House had taken over the lower end of the market and Sarawak Plaza the high end of the branded and more posh-sounding name goods and so on. By then Kuching Plaza had closed its doors for good in the 1990s.

The last 20 years have seen a massive surge in the number of supersized mega-malls and shopping centres being built and hardly a year would go by without the opening of yet another brand new complex – I am totally befuddled by whether any of these developers or investors did any research at all to begin with.

Had they no idea that we have a very small population of less than a million living within the greater Kuching area? What were they thinking of? In the early 2000s anyone could see that we already had a surplus and surfeit of shops, complexes, and shopping centres! The buying public did not grow at the same pace as the number of new outlets being forced fed into the retail market system – something was surely going to give sometime fast.

But no, they just blindly kept building and adding to the now increasing number of empty shop lots, which had by now been gathering cobwebs and their buyers’ bank loan interest!

Someone I know, whom I’ll just call ‘Tan’, who is an IT consultant who has done work with some of the big name corporate boys in town, has been busy the past nine months documenting what he has chosen to call ‘dead mall walking’ –  a personally shot collection of short, mostly less than 10-minute hand-held phone-cam video clips showing at least 15 of these shopping malls and complexes, which are now either almost totally emptied of occupied shop lots or can be seen to be barely surviving.

These clips are very revealing. They are current and up to date – the oldest clip is from 2018 and has been seen by over 1,500 viewers; and the latest is from last week, having already attracted over 500 views. No doubt after this write-up he’ll have a few more viewers.

Most of these short videos have either brief narration, captions, or are mostly eerily silent – only the sound of his footsteps and the whirring air-conditioners or escalators can be heard in the background. I’m sure those being filmed would rather there be the sound of footsteps and noisy customers.

Tan has no personal agenda nor vendetta or even an iota of bad motive making these videos to offend or to upset anyone; except to show to us that in the rush to build and make more profits, many of the builders and developers of such complexes and malls have forgotten the simple and basic supply and demand principle.

Yet he has been threatened, not once, not twice, but many times; and been asked (not too gently as well) to either take down his personal video clips or face the consequences of being sued! I am just wondering how these ‘aggrieved parties’ could go about suing someone over some videos that he has taken of public domains, which have just shown some empty shop fronts and mezzanine floors with no customers. It could well be a landmark case in the making.

I might venture a thought or two about how these redundant and empty shopping spaces can probably be turned around, or made to be more appealing to niche customers. Right now every single shopping mall and complex here in town offers everyone the same items for sale – there is no difference between going to say tHe Spring, Plaza Merdeka, or VivaCity!

Some places like Singapore have their Sim Lim Towers; which specialize in IT, electronics, and telephony equipment. Others elsewhere have a lot of private medical clinics and specialist centres within the same building. Yet many more either offer niche gourmet foods or have bars catering to imbibers of single-malt whiskies, or sake, or gin. Some specialise in spas and beauty salons. The list goes on.

Right now, the only mall from yesteryear which is still surviving due to such a foray into such a niche market is Wisma Saberkas, which has turned into quite an attraction for those customers looking for a good deal on IT goods, mobile phones, and other electronics.

But don’t just stop there. Try and reinvent yourself and look further afield. Be more adventurous and innovative – who knows, success could be just around the next corner. Niche marketing is the way ahead. Eventually the online business will do you in if you don’t change now.

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