Gucci has captured our hearts and pocketbooks. For many people in Hong Kong, there is a sort of religious fervour to shopping with little emotional payoff. 'Shopping malls here have become religious substitutes; they have become more of the cathedral recognised as a leisure pursuit for a sense of pleasure,' said Terry Waterhouse, director at Redgoodss, an international retail design firm. As a result of this mindset, coupled with a lack of interaction with the brands and the failings of the malls themselves to provide multifaceted experiences, shopping in Hong Kong lacks a soul. Simon Blore, managing director of Benoy, the retail design studio responsible for Elements Mall at Kowloon Station, said: 'What makes our retail culture unique is that compared to the world, brand awareness is strongest in Hong Kong and Asia. In addition, the proportion of disposable income set aside for retail purchases seems higher than more developed markets, and we have a particular fascination for luxury and imported goods.' Looking at the retail environment here, it is not hard to imagine that the entire focus of shopping mall developers is on this belief. As strong as the desire among local developers to be international, they simply can't all serve the same master. Yet, too many were trying and subsequently destroying the fabric of what made Hong Kong unique, said Mr Waterhouse, who has 25 years of experience in retail design and brand building worldwide. The needs of the uber-wealthy are clearly being met here. The glory of Central is the Landmark shopping complex and its international brands, the same ones found in New York City and Paris. But luxury shops abound in many districts of Hong Kong from Causeway Bay to Tsim Sha Tsui. 'Enough is enough,' Mr Waterhouse said. 'The mass market is the general core, and we're not being served.' This, from a man who has made designing mammoth retail centres, some in Hong Kong, his life's work. 'It is called the blight of sameness,' Mr Waterhouse explained. Where all the brands found here were the same as those found elsewhere in the world. 'It is something Hong Kong has to watch out for or we will lose our competitiveness.' He posed the question: Why would the increasingly mobile mainland visitor, who makes up our largest tourist base, choose to come to Hong Kong if they can get the same products in New York City? It was an important question to ask, he said, but one that would take a paradigm shift in Hong Kong to change. '[Mainlanders] have seen the best of the best. Hong Kong is no longer a favourite,' Mr Waterhouse said. For Hong Kong to remain a favourite, it must focus on creating character and magic. People coming to Hong Kong enjoyed the street markets, Mr Waterhouse explained, because they felt connected to history. Hongkongers are losing out because with the redevelopment of these markets, they are losing that intimacy with their own past. People now wander aimlessly through shopping centres, searching for that connection and seeking to engage the way they used to in street markets. The essence of Hong Kong was being lost in the modernisation of it, 'like a food dish that doesn't have the right spices and is a bit bland', Mr Waterhouse said. More specifically, it comes back again to the shopping experience that leaves people feeling flat due to the proliferation of luxury brands and lack of intimacy or engagement with shopping centres and the items people buy. He believes the solution is to rev up local brands, rebranding them or creating new ones. But how this is done is important because many local brands think they have a strong concept, but actually they have very little substance. 'Hong Kong has been a developing country struggling to find its identity. People are confused about where they come from and where to go in the next 10 years.' As a result, he said, 'the retail environment is artificial'. To succeed, brands need a big idea. 'No home-grown brand has a big-idea story and, if they do, they don't articulate that. If they could, it would add value down through the company culture, property and customer experience,' Mr Waterhouse said. It should be an idea so strong that it can be communicated from the upper management through the employees and ultimately to the consumer on the shop floor. Consumers should be able to interact with the brand and feel a part of something. For example, bettering the environment through their purchase or being a part of the theatre of the shop. By theatre, Mr Waterhouse means the experience you feel at furniture shops, such as G.O.D., where you feel a part of the old Hong Kong; or Shambala, where each visit contains an element of exploration to see what treasures lurk around the store, brought back from the owner's international travels. It is in the connection, be it corporate social responsibility or theatre, where we can find the shopping soul. Retail developers who know what they stand for and how to interpret that image in their shopping centres will greatly improve the shopping experience. That connection must change as the customer base changes too. Malls also need to reinvent themselves throughout the day to serve the different customer base. Through maximising their knowledge of the neighbourhood, they can increase traffic and keep consumers in the building. 'You need to capture a sense of imagination. From start to finish of day to keep people there. Retailing is a constantly changing environment and management needs to bring innovation to the retailing proposition,' Mr Waterhouse said. In addition to the daytime metamorphosis, shopping centres also need to change throughout their lifespan. 'Retailing is a never-ending story,' Mr Waterhouse said.