Going niche to drum up mall business

Owners of strata-titled malls adopting theme to appeal to certain groups, such as creatives

The future of strata-titled malls is fast taking shape: out go rows of old-school mom-and-pop shops selling textiles, shoes, clothes and provisions; in come gleaming art galleries, bustling co-working spaces and even boutique cinemas.

This bright new retailing world is emerging as they look at strategies to survive in a challenging environment where buyers are shunning bricks-and-mortar outlets in favour of online sites.

Owners and analysts say the key is to have a theme that the shops can all revolve around, rather than having a random tenant mix.

The theme at Katong Point in Joo Chiat Road is "experiential retailers", where customers visit shops not just to pick up items but also for hands-on activities.

A cake shop on the ground floor sells confectionery goods but also holds baking classes and makes customisable cakes.

A cafe around the corner sells coffee together with vinyl records. It also has a DJ keeping the beat going while customers sip their drinks.

BUILDING A COMMUNITY

The strata-titled mall is a traditional model where there are different landlords and everyone has his own interests. But, really, any business is about community building. You have to do good before you can do well. There has to be a common consensus for an overarching concept so the mall can succeed.

MR KENT TEO, founder and chief executive of Invade Industry, which runs some of Singapore's largest markets with new retail and lifestyle concepts, such as Artbox.

The mall also has a woodworking studio, where co-founder Lyn Ng, 26, makes jewellery from discarded timber. It also hosts woodworking workshops.

Mr Kent Teo, founder and chief executive of Invade Industry, said: "The strata-titled mall is a traditional model where there are different landlords and everyone has his own interests.

"But, really, any business is about community building. You have to do good before you can do well. There has to be a common consensus for an overarching concept so the mall can succeed."

Invade runs some of Singapore's largest markets with new retail and lifestyle concepts, such as Artbox, a creative market held at Marina Bay.

It also helps to shape Katong Point through its Mox concept, a co-making space that houses creative businesses, some of which offer elements of experiential retail in the form of workshops and activities.

"The tenants here have to fit the concept of the whole mall," Mr Teo said. "Everyone has his own concerns and struggles, so to talk to a neighbour is not the first priority, but communication remains very important. It is about the collaboration between the individual owners."

He added that the mall becomes a destination in itself, where people come specifically for workshops or to visit certain galleries and studios.

While Katong Point has a more niche theme catering to creatives and start-ups, King Albert Park is revamping itself to become a family-friendly mall with a focus on health and wellness, education, food and beverage, and lifestyle and entertainment.

This is led by its largest tenant, EagleWings Group, which owns a nautical-themed bistro and bar. It will expand this month with the opening of a 153-seat boutique cinema with a premium lounge with butler service and a fashion store called Jomachi.

 
 

Dr Julian Theng, 50, EagleWings Group co-owner and a member of the mall's Management Corporation Strata Title (MCST), said: "The mall was empty and it was so hard to find tenants. It had been a bustling place before, with McDonald's, which we thought would come back but didn't."

Dr Theng and his sister Lisa, also a co-owner of EagleWings Group, said they wanted to take the place and its empty units and make it vibrant again. "We want to appeal to nearby residents and students in the vicinity with entertainment and make it a community mall," said Ms Theng, 51.

Dr Theng is also bringing big brands to King Albert Park, including burger joint Carl's Junior and Taiwanese sugar-free cafe Camaca to entice crowds back to the once-popular mall. The Theng siblings hope their efforts will bring the mall's occupancy from around 30 per cent previously to 70 per cent by next month.

But such an ambitious project needs the cooperation of tenants and landlords. Some owners had to wait for confirmation from prospective tenants or even reject offers if they did not fit the new theme of the mall.

"The MCST and owners had to come together to make small sacrifices, rather than thinking individually," Ms Theng said. "It required a coordinated effort and you needed someone to curate the tenants and have collective vision and direction."

Experts agree that the old concept of strata malls, with individual tenants running their individual outlets, might need to be revamped for them to survive.

International Property Advisor chief executive Ku Swee Yong said: "Get a strong management team and get strata owners to be willing to cooperate with each other to set a strong theme and identity for the mall and invest in promoting the mall to tenants and shoppers."

Professor Kapil R. Tuli, director at the Singapore Management University's Retail Centre of Excellence, said: "In the 1980s and 1990s, such strata malls were popular because shopping was about going out to buy what you need. But now, this strata mall model does not work because you cannot just have a random assortment of shops. People have many options now and the mall must offer a meaningful experience."

Even a strata mall like Ming Arcade, in which 59 of its 88 units went up for a collective for sale in October, will need to rally its tenants around to collaborate despite their differences, experts said.

Prof Kapil noted: "If shop owners don't talk to each other, one side of a strata mall can look like it's in 2018 and the other like it's in 1980. The business logic is still that they are stronger together. They have to collaborate with each other."