Bangkok mastered the art of glitzy retail palaces. Now, authenticity is the favored currency.
Bangkok has played a major role in the rapid proliferation of luxury malls across Asia, partly because of the city’s appealing blend of rising incomes and relatively affordable land prices. The result has been a boom in upscale malls, culminating in late 2018 with the opening of IconSiam on a prime 20-acre (8 ha) site along the Chao Phraya River. With an investment of US$1.65 billion, IconSiam is the largest mall in Southeast Asia and is among the biggest privately financed projects in Thailand’s history.
IconSiam showcases unique features such as multimedia water, music, and light shows on its long riverfront promenade and the dazzling glass-box Apple Store—the first in Thailand. The mall also boasts a state-of-the-art performance hall and museum, along with grand luxury showrooms in IconLuxe, a lavish 269,000-square-foot (25,000 sq m) luxury wing.
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But a shopping boom underway counters the sky-high opulence of Bangkok’s plush malls with a new wave of small, neighborhood malls showcasing hip architecture plus local food and wares. Many credit architect Duangrit Bunnag as catalyst for the movement.
After designing H1, considered the city’s first upscale neighborhood mall in the 1990s, Bunnag opened Jam Factory in 2013, renovating a derelict battery factory across the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok’s Thonburi district to serve as an events space with trendy restaurants, a store selling chic home products, an art gallery, and a bookstore. In 2017, he revamped a group of old wooden storerooms, creating his even bigger Warehouse 30, across the river in a historic but run-down neighborhood that is being revived as the Creative District–Bangkok River, with cafés, public art, and boutique hotels.
Dominating Thailand’s retail sector is Central Group, which has 60 malls and 2,400 retail outlets, and has expanded to Vietnam and Indonesia, plus several markets in Europe. Central’s vast footprint should continue to expand in Thailand, financed by over $2.5 billion raised by spinning off Central Retail Corporation in a February stock listing—the largest ever in Thailand.
Central remains bullish on upscale malls—its newest and most lavish being Central Embassy, which brought scores of new luxury brands to Bangkok—but Central Retail chief executive officer Yol Phokasub plans to diversify the company’s offerings with mainstream malls targeting customers in less affluent neighborhoods.
Bunnag’s two projects bet on a trend countering Bangkok’s long love affair with air-conditioned malls filled with luxury showrooms. These new community malls often feature like-minded shops with artistic design themes, plus music and other events as drawing cards for shoppers.
The Commons is probably the most successful of these community malls spreading through the city and suburbs that make up this metropolis of 15 million people. At the Commons, opened in 2015 in Bangkok’s trendy Thonglor district, siblings Varrat and Vicharee Vichit-Vadakan filled four floors with an eclectic mix of counterculture shops and funky food stalls. Gigantic, airplane propeller-style fans spin over shops offering ribs and salad, natural beauty supplies, and local crafts. Customers mingle at wooden tables perched on multiple levels, with more stands on the stairs. It is a vertical mall, in the style of traditional shophouses.
“That was how we planned it,” says Vicharee, the older sister. “We wanted to create a space where from the fourth floor you could look down and still see what is going on.”
The community aspect is enhanced by clusters of similar shops, like food stalls on the Market floor and retail on the Village floor. A big children’s area and fitness center sit on the Playground floor, while the top floor, named Top Yard, hosts a big open kitchen, picnic tables in a rooftop garden, and Roast, the signature restaurant. The Commons quickly became a popular meeting place for local hipsters, prompting the opening of a second Commons in the Saladaeng neighborhood this year.
The design draws on similar malls across the United States, where Vicharee attended school and worked until 2012 before returning home to Thailand. “There are lots of places like this—refurbished old buildings in the West,” she says. Inspiration came from markets like the Ferry Building in San Francisco, and Oxbow Public Market in Napa, California, where customers can discuss products with farmers and crafts people. “This is new to Thailand, where the big malls have always been more popular.”
Sandwiched between Bangkok’s megamalls and community plazas is Gaysorn, an older but resilient downtown mall offering high-end shopping and VIP experiences. Three decades ago, Gaysorn distinguished itself from local department stores by focusing on luxury.
In recent years, however, luxury brands migrated to the gala showrooms that only megamalls could host, so Gaysorn augmented its high-end retail by building a new tower with commercial offices and workspace, plus function rooms suitable for fashion shows and product launches. Top designers created a jazzy vibe with natural wood and banks of plants, while floor-to-ceiling windows showcase the city skyline. Gaysorn also invested lavishly in original art, which is sprinkled throughout the mall and the adjacent mixed-use tower, spilling onto an overhead skywalk.
Called Gaysorn Village, the complex offers ritzy office space at some of Bangkok’s highest rates, along with meeting space, beauty services, and lots of food and beverage facilities. Rather than a retreat from retail, Charn Srivikorn, chief executive officer of Gaysorn Property and Gaysorn Asset Land Management, describes it as “a new chapter,” and it stands as an innovative approach to urban planning in one of the world’s most crowded cities. “We offer seamless connectivity between work, living style, and play space,” he says.
What all these centers share, besides a competitive enthusiasm to serve consumers, is an agile ability to alter design, circulation, and content to create more experiential environments that appeal to modern customers in highly defined target demographics.
Community malls are unquestionably a rising force in the Bangkok retail sector, generally afforded second place on Bangkok’s retail maps but still trailing the major mall chains by a wide margin, according to local retail experts.
The amount of rentable space in community malls grew at double-digit rates in the mid-2010s, according to a report from Thailand’s Krungsari Research, but proliferation has since slowed, and the entire retail sector faces a looming oversupply problem. Community malls account for about 16 percent of Bangkok’s retail supply, according to a 2019 end-of-year report from real estate consultancy Colliers International; traditional malls account for up to 60 percent of total retail space.
The coronavirus crisis has disrupted models and planning for malls, which were closed from March to May in Thailand, the first country outside China to have a confirmed COVID-19 case. Jeremy O’Sullivan, head of research at real estate consultancy Savills in Thailand, predicts that recovery may require years, exacerbated not only by the lack of tourists—an estimated 40 million visited Thailand in 2019 and comprise a large portion of luxury shoppers—but also a massive stock of new supply set to hit the market.
Bangkok has about 95 million square feet (8.8 million sq m) of retail space, according to a Savills report released in June, with over 32 million square feet (3 million sq m) qualifying as prime retail space, and 13 million square feet (1.2 million sq m) of that being luxury retail. Savills projects that over 12 million square feet (1.15 million sq m) of new retail space will hit the market by 2024, an increase of over 37 percent from the first quarter of this year. While this includes standalone malls and mixed-use projects, a large portion will be high-end space at premier projects, including 2 million square feet (200,000 sq m) each at One Bangkok and Emsphere.
One Bangkok is an ambitious urban renewal scheme for old Suan Lum Night Bazaar, a massive central market that had been shut for nearly a decade before being razed to make way for new construction. The $3.5 billion redevelopment is the largest project ever mounted in Thailand, with residential towers and a handful of five-star hotels and office towers planned for the over 40-acre (16 ha) site. Emsphere is the newest project from the Mall Group, which revived its Emporium brand with the opening in 2015 of EmQuartier with 6.5 million square feet (600,000 sq m) of space. Like EmQuartier, Emsphere will be located near the group’s Emporium Mall in Phrom Phong.
Both Emsphere and One Bangkok are slated to open in 2022–2023. Those follow Terminal 21 on Rama 3 in 2021 and Siam Premium Mall, which opened this summer.
O’Sullivan says the oversupply could be eased if delivery of some projects is spaced out, which is likely given the economic situation post-pandemic. But even before the virus crisis, retail was in a slide, he notes. Savills reported that Thailand’s retail sales indexes averaged 6 percent annual growth over the past 10 years. However, that figure tumbled to 5 percent in 2019 and is expected to plummet in 2020. Meanwhile, the local Consumer Confidence Index has been falling since February 2019 and was recently estimated to be at its lowest level since 2014.
Attracting Foot Traffic
Community malls may offer authenticity, but they can struggle to generate the foot traffic of major malls, says Vicharee. After working at Boston Consulting Group and for brands like Bath and Body Works, she got her first hands-on retail experience after returning to Thailand to team up with brother Vichit. He had already operated several local restaurants and coffee houses, and the pair have their own Roast restaurant at the Commons.
They also operate outlets at malls like EmQuartier, so they realize that revenue in large malls can be much higher than in community malls. “No question, they get a lot more traffic,” says Vicharee. “Malls can really be cash registers.”
Smaller malls like the Commons can offer lower rents, as well as enticements like exclusivity.
“We’re really picky about our tenants,” she says. “With bigger places, they can have multiple shops in any category, but we don’t want to compete. So, we want one great burger place, one Mexican,” she explains. “Bigger shopping centers look to maximize return, but we really want to work with our partners and find good products to showcase.”
The Commons also offers levels of attention and promotion that shopping centers with hundreds of outlets cannot match. Music events draw festive crowds for food and beverage outlets, and other events like workshops often link to special products in the shops. But so far, retail businesses at the Commons have not fared as well.
“You really need to have unique products that you cannot find at the malls, or something niche,” she concedes. A recent visit revealed that several shops had closed, while a new store, Earth Mart, had just opened. It stocks organic face wash, bamboo body lotion, and sustainable products.
Gaysorn took a different tack in response to the rise of megamalls, leveraging its central location to add high-end office space and doubling down on distinct luxury that works better outside major malls. IconSiam boasts glittering showrooms for Gucci and Hermes behind a pillar-free glass curtain facade facing the Chao Phraya River, but not all luxury brands demand two-story product palaces. Gaysorn showcases more affordable luxe and street fashion, along with clusters of high-end products like watches.
Gaysorn also offers exquisitely de-signed work and function space, similar to the facilities of a high-end hotel but without the guest rooms.
“We provide differentiation and personalization,” says Charn. Brands book the space to showcase products, hold workshops, and pamper VIPs.
Gaysorn’s Crystal Box is aptly named—a plush room with glass walls and dramatic city views for 200 guests that is perfect for fashion shows and product launches. “Before, brands did events in-store,” he says. “Now they want to do it outside, make it a special experience.”
Gaysorn’s success illuminates one alternative to expensive megamalls, which have been in decline around the world, though not yet in Bangkok. “Is the mall dead? We’ve been hearing that for some time,” says Caroline Murphy, a vice president specializing in retail at Siam Piwat, a Bangkok-based retail and development company. “But bad malls are dead. Bad shopping is dead. We need to adapt to the times and what shoppers want.”
IconSiam offers scores of new experiences in a dramatic riverside location. “This is a luxury destination,” Murphy notes, as well as the first major shopping plaza in Thonburi district. Briefly Thailand’s capital in the late 1700s, Thonburi has been in decline for centuries.
IconSiam is unconventional at almost every turn, with two main entrances, each with a dramatically different look, feel, and layout, as if they lead to two different malls. From the street, visitors enter a ground-floor complex of stalls located along an indoor waterway meant to evoke the traditional Thai floating market. The shops are located both in wooden buildings resembling traditional canal structures and in boats floating on the water. Murphy says Siam Piwat staff spent years scouring Thailand for special food and craft vendors. All 77 provinces are represented in what is called Sook Siam—sook meaning happiness in Thai—along with traditional architecture and artwork.
The river is fronted by tall glass walls fabricated from giant freestanding, narrow sheets of glass custom-made in Germany. IconSiam built the largest docks in the country, and most visitors will arrive by boat or ferry. “It’s a special journey, from start to finish,” says Murphy, pointing out distinctive attractions on every floor, topped by Thailand’s newest museum—focused on the Bangkok’s history and the river—and a modern performance hall.
Authenticity is the new name of the game for Bangkok, adds architect Bunnag. “We already had this age of the wow factor, when everything was being built bigger—higher towers and projects with more flash. But that wow factor is really over; it’s become a thing of the past. Now, people are more interested in the real deal. People want more authenticity in everything. They want projects that touch them in the heart.”
RON GLUCKMAN is an American journalist who has written for Forbes, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Monocle, Travel & Leisure, Town and Country, and many other publications.