Here in Chandigarh, the spanking new and sparkly Elante Mall is attracting crowds in their droves. High-end stores selling designer labels rub shoulders here with Big Bazaar and Reliance which cater to those with more modest budgets. The ubiquitous gaming zone, food court and multiplex are also in residence. This is an example of an Indian shopping mall that has something for most people. There are special female parking zones here – a little innovation that I particularly liked. No female-driving jokes will be entertained at this point. This mall has quickly become hugely popular with the local populace that is thronging the welcoming A/C mall with great zest, leaving the traditional shopping area of Sector 17 a little forlorn. But this is Chandigarh, where the expansive, fun-loving Punjabi culture thinks nothing of spending extravagantly. In my opinion, this mall still has a novelty value for the local janta who rush there in groups.
What about the mall culture elsewhere?
Has mall culture really arrived in India? In my experience, malls in India frequently open up with great fanfare; the glitzy stores, the ‘deals’ and the simple desire to spend some time in attractive (think novelties such as transparent lifts and escalators), climate controlled environs means that there is sufficient footfall to begin with.
But do those footfalls translate into the expenditure required to keep those businesses afloat? The number of malls that either close down completely or display downed shutters of shops that go out of business suggest otherwise.
Why Mall Culture has caught on in parts of India
Malls in places like Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai continue to thrive and flourish. For families here, malls are an outing where parents can make their weekly purchases, children can enjoy video games, bungee jumping and so on and the entire family can enjoy a movie and a meal. In overcrowded city landscapes, increasingly eroded and disappearing parks and other spaces like monuments cease to be conducive to family outings; in such a scenario, malls are a great option.
Young professionals with large disposable incomes, nuclear families who are often relocated to cities where they don’t have other family members or close groups of friends are the most typical demographic that keeps malls alive in India.
Helpful sales people, climate controlled interiors and everything being available under one roof means that malls in Tier I Indian cities are buzzing with activity, particularly on the weekends. The incredible success of mall culture in Gurgaon, once a sleepy village and now a glitzy urban landscape crammed with malls, is a case in point.
There is also a segment of the population that is very brand conscious; even luxury conscious. Not only does this segment have the resources to make expensive purchases, they experience a social pressure/compulsion to make those purchases in preference to cheaper choices. For the young and trendy, malls are a place to see and to be seen; or they are a place to just chill with friends and grab a coffee.
Why Mall Culture continues to fail in India
However in large swathes of India, malls that open with great enthusiasm display the blank stares of shut shops and businesses that either scale down or shut down completely; all this in a few short years. Pacific Mall in Agra for instance, opened with an attractive gaming section, a fairly competent food court, multiplex and dozens of shops that were fairly good value for money. The gaming complex was the first to shut, then went each of the food court stalls by turns. Then the shops first downsized and reduced their shop size and then shut down altogether. The Max store and the multiplex were the last to go. The mall is now resembles an abandoned warehouse.
One reason why so many malls shut down is the fact that Indians are very price sensitive. If we get a cheaper deal elsewhere, we will not buy the same commodity from the mall. Indians will visit the mall because Indians love the A/C, and because escalators are still a novelty and a photo-op for many, but not too many purchases will be made if a better deal exists elsewhere.
Another unique feature of small town India is that a lot of shopping is still done by the domestic help. It is the local mandi and the neighbourhood kirana store that supplies all the daily needs of a traditional household. Indians continue to patronize shops that they have been going to for years – habit or loyalty may be the reasons here. This daily shopping is done not by a member of the family but by the domestic help, who is not likely to venture up to a mall to make purchases for their employer.
This traditional set up no longer exists in many of the larger cities and this is one of the reasons that malls are more popular and perform better in the larger cities.
The future of malls in India
However in times to come, I feel that malls will become more the norm and less the exception. Business models set up by Big Bazaar and Vishal Megamart are uniquely suited to Indians and Indian shopping habits. So there will be more affordable, egalitarian malls that cater to the local demographic. Also as incomes increase, more people will be able and willing to even pay extra for the mall experience – the ease and comfort of shopping in a mall vis-a-vis India’s frequently brutal weather, will probably dictate this behavior.
So while some malls that are not ideally situated or improperly conceptualized could continue to shot down, more malls will continue to spring up elsewhere. One wonders whether to cheer or to sigh in depression at the idea of more and more malls.
By Reena Daruwalla