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40 years of retail change but Hong Kong remains a shopper's paradise
From department stores in the 1970s to malls with just about everything in 2012, Hong Kong remains a retail paradise for both locals and visitors
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Hong Kong is now established as the world's most expensive location for prime retail space, but the city's retail sector is much more than the eye-watering numbers.
Shopping has a deep-rooted importance to the city and has long been the No1 pastime for locals, who prefer to frequent air-conditioned malls rather than pursue outdoor pursuits, especially during the hot summer months.
The definition of a shopping mall has undergone constant evolution over the past 40 years. In the 1970s, there were almost no shopping malls in the city. Instead, we had locally run or Japanese-invested department stores such as Wing On, Sincere, Shui Hing, Dragon Seed, Da Da, Daimaru, and Matsuzakaya.
Into the 1980s, Japanese-style department stores began to dominate the market, with Yaohan, Mitsukoshi, Jusco, Tokyu and Sogo becoming very popular. There were some large-scale "shopping centres" such as Ocean Terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui, New Town Plaza in Sha Tin, and The Landmark in Central. But these were the exception and these types of department stores were usually leased to tenants in the form of consignment counters.
There was very little retail zoning and limited shopfront design and the stores themselves had few points of differentiation.
Due to changing tastes and consumption demands of local shoppers, many department stores began to close down from the early 1990s.
Shoppers began to look for shopping spaces with a vibrant brand mix, attractive shopfront displays, and more entertainment activities, preferring individually-branded shops to single consignment counters, as well as the option to find different features and various styles between malls.
Thus, the "shopping centre" concept started to evolve in Hong Kong, a trend that has continued to develop over the following two decades.
Times Square in Causeway Bay and Pacific Place in Admiralty became the important retail zones on Hong Kong Island, while Harbour City, comprising Ocean Terminal, Ocean Centre, Ocean Gallery and the new extension Gateway 1 & 2 created an identity for the Kowloon side.
To satisfy shoppers' desire for more enjoyment when shopping, most shopping malls in the 1990s were large, with multiple trading and a maximum of six to seven levels. Harbour City in Tsim Sha Tsui, Festival Walk in Kowloon Tong and New Town Plaza in Sha Tin are typical examples - offering "one-stop shop venues" with multiple services such as restaurants, cinemas, and children's play areas.
The large floor areas of malls began to attract international brands in the city for the first time, including Marks & Spencer. Some local retailers such as G2000, Le Saunda and Gay Giano also noticed the high traffic in these malls and opened a "featured shop" or flagship store.
As the land supply in Hong Kong's CBD areas became scarcer in the 2000s, developers were required to open shopping malls on smaller pieces of land, as well as look at non-traditional retail districts. We began to see the appearance of "vertical malls" including APM in Kwun Tong, Langham Place in Mong Kok, and iSquare and The One in Tsim Sha Tsui, which generally have a smaller footprint and at least 10 floors.
The small floor area and less spacious settings forced landlords to innovate or "self-brand" their developments to target different shopping segments such as teenage-focused malls, food and beverage-focused malls, or household-focused malls - apm even promotes late-night shopping.
However, the key event in the past decade was undoubtedly the relaxation of travel policy in 2003 for mainlanders visiting Hong Kong. This resulted in a big increase in mainlanders visiting the city and considerable changes to the city's tenant mix.
We have seen a widespread trend of luxury shops opening on prime shopping streets, as well as the occupation of large floor spaces by international retailers, especially jewellery, watch and electronic goods shops in malls to satisfy a seemingly insatiable demand from cash-rich visitors.
In the past two years, key shopping malls have rearranged their tenant mix by allocating more retail space to luxury brands in the highest-rental- value space on lower levels. They have moved big-space retailers and those who are less inclined or less able to pay the highest rents, such as supermarkets, electronic goods operators, or bookstores, to upper floors.
It's a win-win deal for the landlords and the retail giants, but to a certain extent is a loss for some local retailers as they are forced to either move to upper floors or move out.
So what now for those mid-range or local retailers? How can they exist and expand in this current climate of high rents?
With the rapid tenant-mix upgrading in CBD malls, and the focus on luxury on key retail streets, these retailers are now looking for malls in suburban districts. As a doorway to the mainland market, international mid-range fashions have a desire to be present and indeed expand their market share in Hong Kong.
More of these retailers are willing to accept package deals offered by major landlords to take up larger space in their suburban portfolios to compensate for the scarce retail space in core districts, while other retailers are now opening stores directly. More of these brands are entering malls in districts such as Tseung Kwan O, Tsing Yi, Tsuen Wan, Sha Tin, Kwun Tong and Yau Tong, symbolising a further expansion from traditional CBDs to tier 2 or even tier 3 locations.
I expect to see this trend continue over coming years, resulting in a considerable enrichment of the tenant mix in non-CBD shopping malls.
There is intense competition between malls. Landlords fully understand the need to continuously upgrade the shopping experience both in terms of retailer choice, as well as providing increasingly sophisticated bonus services such as free baby strollers, cellphone charging and better entertainment events to satisfy the ever-demanding Hong Kong shopper.
I would argue that the Hong Kong retail sector continues to be in rude health. We have seen an evolutionary journey over the past 40 years and despite facing challenges, I expect the market to adapt and overcome.
Hong Kong will remain a shopper's paradise for locals and visitors.
Joe Lin is a senior director of CBRE's retail services division