In the past few years, the art of retail shopping on the continent has taken on a different dimension with the growth and expansion of malls offering a new experience to shoppers.
East Africa has not been left behind in this continental trend; malls have been mushrooming in the region, with Kenya leading the pack.
According to the Shop Africa 2016 Report by real estate consultancy Knight Frank, Nairobi leads in malls and shopping centre development in sub-Saharan Africa outside of South Africa. Dar es Salaam is second in the region and fourth on the continent after the cities of Luanda and Lagos.
But what is driving the culture of malls, and is there a science behind mega-retailing?
The Junction in Nairobi, now in its 12th year of operation, is still the busiest mall in Nairobi by customer footfall. It has benefited from its central location on a major city road — Ngong Road— and by being surrounded by growing upper and middle class suburbs in its customer catchment areas.
But besides location and tenant mix, parking and ambience are the other key features that entice customers. “If you don’t have those four in the right mix it becomes an issue,” said Mwihoti M’Mbijiwe, the marketing manager at Knight Frank Kenya, which manages Junction.
“You can have ample parking but you’re not in the right location or you can have the right tenant mix but not enough parking.” This can make or break the popularity of a mall. But the ultimate make-or-break factor in a mall is the anchor tenant, which is always a major retailer that attracts the core customer base and gives exposure to secondary tenants.
Ms M’Mbijiwe explained: “If you don’t have a strong anchor tenant, it affects your footfall. You have to have an anchor tenant for the main shopping and then have all these little shops that benefit from people walking by.”
There is also a science behind tenant placement in the mall layout. “Service or food-related tenants will generally be quite close to the anchor tenant,” said Ashmi Shah, the retail portfolio manager at Knight Frank. “At the food court, there’s a different tenant mix. It’s the psychology of what each of those tenants brings together.”
When it comes to ambience, besides having clean attractive premises, there has to be a positive customer experience from all staff, and not just those at the information desk.
“Customers may ask the security personnel questions on where to find certain amenities or service, and you need to make sure your security and cleaning staff are trained to a certain level to answer such questions,” said Ms Shah.
In Western countries, where the mall culture took root decades ago, the key tenant is often a big department store offering all services expected. In East Africa, the anchor tenant is typically a major local supermarket.
In Nairobi however, the recently opened Hub Karen, a new mall in the upmarket neighbourhood of Karen, went against the trend and has Carrefour, an international French hypermarket chain, as its anchor tenant. Carrefour will also be the anchor tenant at Two Rivers Mall, coming up near Gigiri in Nairobi and set to open in September.
Having the foreign retailer was part of a strategy to elevate the profile said mall manager Jonathan Yach. “An international brand like Carrefour is going to set very different standards from what is available locally. We have now future-proofed ourselves for the next six to eight years till the next best things arrives.”
On The Hub’s profile, he added, “We have retailers that are unique to the region and services that are not available anywhere else. These include East Africa’s first skateboard park; we allow shoppers to have dogs on a leash in the mall’s public areas and a full-service gym with an indoor swimming pool, making The Hub only the second mall in Nairobi with a fitness facility, the other being the Sarit Centre.
Another factor driving the growth of malls in Kenya is the adoption of an integrated business formula as opposed to purely retail facilities as is common in developed countries.
Garden City mall, off the Thika highway, to the north of Nairobi, prides itself as being the first mixed-use complex, combining retail, leisure, an office park and a residential village. The still under construction Two Rivers Mall near Gigiri envisions a similar concept. In the long term, Hub Karen plans to build a hotel adjacent to the mall.
Exponential urbanisation has outpaced Nairobi’s infrastructure and traffic snarl-ups are the order of the day. Consequently, city residents are increasingly attracted to centres offering shopping, dining, entertainment and commercial services in one place.
Pharmacies, laundormats, banks and forex bureaus and exhibition space are literally must-have amenities. Recently, major hospitals and clinics have set up outlets in some malls or nearby, bringing health services where the public is.
Rise in consumerism
The popularity of large gallerias is evidence of an expanding wealth base and more disposable income. “It means a rise in consumerism because people have more money to spend and they want to spend it on fine goods, experiences and good food,” said Mr Yach, adding that as more people travel abroad or get exposure through technology to world trends, it means local consumer expectations are rising.
“They look online and think, ‘I want it here, now,’” said Mr Yach.
Although Nairobi has the highest number of malls in Kenya, developers are slowly turning their sights on upcountry locations targeting the middle class. The Buffalo Mall in Naivasha off the main Kenya-Uganda highway opened in 2013. The same developers are planning a mega shopping centre in Eldoret, a town further west on the same highway and the economic hub of the North Rift.
Although it is believed that middle class affluence is driving the growth of malls, there is now talk of an oversupply of shopping space. “Even the [retail] industry believes that we have too much shopping space,” observed Mr Yach, who however disagrees with the idea.
“We’re not over-supplied but we are simply reengineering and retuning the real estate that we’ve got. Is there scope for more retail development in this country? Absolutely, in the right places,” he said.
Yet six months since it opened its doors, Hub Karen still has unoccupied space. This is part of a deliberate letting plan to extend the novelty factor and differentiate the mall. “It is strategically waiting for the right tenants,” clarified Mr Yach.
Shopping habits in Nairobi have changed as residential and business areas come up farther away from the city centre, which used to be the core commercial district.
When the Sarit Centre, opened its doors 33 years ago, it was Nairobi’s first major mall and the Westlands suburb where it was located was predominantly residential. But proximity to the city centre has transformed the once leafy neighbourhood into a concrete jungle.
“The location has become the city’s second central business district,” said Peter Moll, the public relations co-ordinator at Sarit Centre. Furthermore, the consumer demographics have changed too, “from predominantly white and Indian to now over 80 per cent African — from 30 per cent when we opened in April, 1983,” he added.
Development pressure has affected virtually all quarters of Nairobi with commercial centres mushrooming in an unplanned manner, thereby creating the sense of surplus of shopping space. “They are becoming like street kiosks,” said Mr Moll. “However, that said, most of them are sustainable if they are serving smaller market catchments.”
Functionally obsolete centres
Older shopping centres meanwhile are faced with declining value in terms of attracting shoppers and robust tenants. “If you don’t have adequate parking, a variety of eateries, walkways and lead-in shopping, you become functionally obsolete, relative to the next mall that comes with all of these facilities,” says Mr Yach.
For example Nairobi’s Lavington Green and the ABC shopping centres, long-standing neighbourhood strip malls, have recognised the changing retail environment and have upgraded their facilities and tenant mix.
The News Cafe Restaurant, a South African franchise, is the first new eatery for many years at the Sarit Centre, which is currently undergoing a phased expansion. Mr Moll described the News Cafe as highly successful, adding that, “Inevitably the protection provided tenants on a one-only basis cannot be sustained and many similar units to those already in business here can be expected.”
Film theatres, once a standard feature of any new mall development, now have to compete with home entertainment. The Sarit Centre still operates a movie hall and Mr Moll admits that though first releases and Indian films are popular, technology is affecting lifestyles. “So probably multiple smaller theatres screening a variety of films simultaneously may be the future,” he said.
Movies and art exhibitions
Ms M’Mbijiwe of Knight Frank, says movie theatres remain an attractive option at The Junction for young families. “Parents can drop their kids at a movie and they’ll be at that location for two hours and not just wandering about the mall.”
The Hub Karen has taken a different route with plans for monthly shows of Africa-themed films in their open-air piazza, which will have a retractable roof to make it an all-weather space.
Nevertheless, mall entertainment menus have had to diversify as customers become more demanding. For example, The Junction is looking to expand its weekly musical Maasai market, a cultural fair of traditional music and crafts, with art displays featuring works by Kenyan artists.
“We have noted that Kenyans are now embracing art. There is that niche of Kenyans who are very artsy,” says Suzanne Buyole, PR and communications officer at Knight Frank Kenya. “The market will support local artists.”
The Village Market, located in the exclusive Muthaiga suburb, has long held art exhibitions and more recently, Garden City Mall has gone the same route. When the Hub opens an art display area it will exhibit visual arts, fashion and other genres of creative works by Kenyan artists. It is this sort of value-added service that distinguishes one mall from another, complements the existing tenant mix and creates new interest for shoppers.
Security remains a key concern where many people congregate randomly. In the wake of terror attacks and alerts, business activities drop considerably in malls across the city.
Subsequently, body and vehicle checks, camera surveillance, increased security personnel on the beat and more physical barriers have become the norm at shopping malls, while behind the scenes, the management participates in intelligence collaboration with the national security apparatus.
The tricky aspect of mall security is balancing the need for public safety while minimising liability for tenants and maintaining a safe, welcoming ambience for shoppers.
“It’s a watched environment, which I don’t think any of us really want. The fortress effect is contrary to the principles of good retail,” says Mr Yach. But he adds, “We want you to feel comfortable in the shopping centre. If you are comfortable, you will then relax, enjoy yourself and shop.”