Why malls? Why not?

December 28, 2019

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MOST people believe that the trend of visiting malls has been on the rise of late. “It’s so convenient. You go to one place and can buy everything you want, and have a variety of food and children’s entertainment options. Moreover, they are a place to see and be seen and where the entire family can go; it allows people to appear socially upwardly mobile,” says Afia Salam, a journalist.

During the past few years more and more people have taken to shopping at malls rather than going to conventional markets. And it is not just for branded clothes, shoes and bags — from household goods to books and stationery supplies to grocery everything is available and can be bought at competitive rates.

Malls provide a combination of shopping possibilities, eating opportunities, family entertainment, easy parking, central air conditioning plus a clean conducive environment. And this has helped in developing a culture of malls in our urban centres.

Over the last few years, the culture of shopping malls has become popular in the country, not only in large cities which were the trendsetters but also in smaller cities such as Sheikhupura, Gujranwala and Hyderabad which are fast catching up.

It may not be possible to say exactly when the first mall opened its doors to public in the country but it can comfortably be said that malls started to make their appearance during the late 90s.

However, it took some time for people to get used to the idea of shopping at a mall. As they say ‘old habits die hard’ — people were used to the conventional markets and many thought that prices would be inflated at the malls because of larger area, security and air conditioning, etc. So in the beginning few people visited these malls. But the convenience and a different shopping experience drew the crowds and malls began to thrive. And people discovered that the prices of recognised brands are the same as at outlets other than in malls.

As Tarrannum Elahi, a yoga expert, puts it, “Mall culture is about convenience. You can get almost everything — from kitchen dusters to electronic items — under one roof. One doesn’t have to go to different places. There are no parking hassles as malls have their own parking, often with valet service, and once inside it is cool and clean, whereas the other markets are neither that clean or spacious. You have to park sometimes very far and walk in the dust and heat to reach the market.”

Many would agree that a mall is more than just a shopping place now. People can, and do, indulge in window shopping, browse around and see what is new, spend some time at the food court relaxing with friends over a cup of coffee or snacks whereas the children enjoy the play area. It is a place to meet and greet.

Erum Hafeez, a professor at a private university, believes, “Many people these days from middle and upper classes prefer malls rather than ordinary markets as they find them cool and convenient. I would rather say that mostly brand conscious people opt for malls over open markets as they think that malls provide a wide range of brands under one roof in air conditioned, cosy environment. So it’s both convenient and classy for them to shop from there.”

“Shopping at malls is also a class conscious thing. Some people consider open markets cheap and below their status where one needs to walk under the sun in open air often through narrow and uneven pavements and alleys to reach the required shops,” she argues.

Many would agree that a mall is more than just a shopping place. People just don’t shop at malls. Visiting malls is a pastime for many, as you can indulge in window shopping, browse around and see what is new, spend some time at the food court or a restaurant within the mall relaxing with friends over a cup of coffee or snacks whereas the children enjoy the play area. For them it is a place to meet and greet people, spend leisurely hours at a safe and comfortable place. In summers with frequent power failures people take to visiting malls as they are centrally air conditioned and provide a respite from the stifling heat.

“Among many reasons for shopping at malls, the main is, of course, the convenience,” says Rubab, who works at a private bank. “You get most of the things under one roof. For instance, if I am shopping for clothes, almost all brands have their outlets there and I can pick and choose without having to go out and look for parking or walk on the road and broken footpaths.” Going from shop to shop at markets such as Tariq Road or Zamzama poses other problems too. You not only have to walk on footpaths which may or may not be paved but “getting out from an air conditioned shop in the open sun and then entering another air conditioned shop is also a health hazard,” says Rubab, who is never satisfied unless she visits at least half a dozen shops for one thing. “Security is another factor that draws me to malls. You can roam around for hours in a mall and not have to fear about being robbed at a gun point.”

Lately, it is being seen that young people, especially girls, have taken to meet their friends at the food courts within the malls. “This way we can spend time in a safe and secure place and if anyone needs anything we can shop as well,” says Tania, a recent graduate.

Sana Zaidi, mother of three, prefers shopping at malls, especially when she has to shop for her three children. “It’s safer and convenient. We get everything under one roof and the children don’t complain of heat and crowd,” she says. “And when tired we can relax in the food court and the younger one can entertain himself at the play area.”

When asked if it is not heavy on the pocket or doesn’t she end up buying things she doesn’t really need, she agrees that it is and she does. “With the availability of everything at one location I often tend to buy things that are not on my initial shopping list,” she says. “Given the variety available, children want to buy things which are not needed and often one has to relent. To how many things one can say no to his/her child? Also the eateries at the food court are not inexpensive. While I am satisfied that they are hygienic, the satisfaction comes with a price,” she adds.

Sana, who has a marketing degree, outlines the factors behind the rising mall culture. “When cities lack entertainment facilities, outdoor activities and security at open places, people start giving preference to malls over markets. The retailers benefit as when people come to spend time they are bound to shop as well. Availability of disposable income is another factor — no matter how much we complain about inflation there is a section of society that is not short of disposable income,” explains Sana.

When asked why all major brands have their outlets in almost all malls as often many people are not seen shopping there, using her marketing experience, she says, “Brands have to show their presence and they maintain their outlets on the assumption that someone can decide to take a look and end up making a purchase.”

However everyone is not pleased with the growing mall culture, and there are many who prefer the good old conventional markets, especially for unbranded items. Maryam, an advertising executive, is fond of markets than malls. “I like the convenience of shopping at malls but I often visit old markets such as Empress Market for groceries etc.,” she says.

Shazia, a housewife, agrees with her. “I agree it is convenient but visiting conventional markets has a charm of its own,” she says. “You don’t buy branded stuff all the time. What if you need a matching or accessories for a shirt or dupatta or get a dupatta dyed?” she asks. “If you are shopping at Bohri Bazaar or Tariq Road you can forage for these things, and even find amazing knickknacks you are not even looking for.”

She recalls the good old days when markets such as Tariq Road in Karachi, Resham Gali in Hyderabad and Anakali in Lahore used to be shoppers’ paradise, and wonders if these places are going to fade out. But then though these may be losing their appeal, there are many things that forces one to visit conventional markets. “Would you find a dupatta galli in any of the malls? Or knitting wool or embroidery threads? Or for that matter, even an embroidery wala or even a tailor? If you are a creative person and in the habit of designing your own clothes, malls are not for you. As for snacks and refreshments, there’s no shortage of these at conventional markets too — samosa, bun kabab and ice cream are all available,” she says.

But then only few people need these things or have the time to indulge in such activities. Availability of ready-to-wear and branded items has changed people’s choices and preferences. So, saying that it’s a matter of choice and depends on what you want to buy would not be wrong.