In the once-quiet Saar area, near the Rugby Club, a friend tells me that there will soon be at least six shopping malls of varying sizes by next year. As a catchment area for Saudi tourists from across the Causeway, it makes sense for many investors to try and position their mall here. Still, to have a half-dozen malls within hopping distance of each other does seem to me a planning oversight that will doom them to retail failure.
Look at the Juffair main street today – there are two giant malls, three hypermarkets and a large supermarket vying for custom. Nonetheless, there are two more smaller shopping centres coming up off the main road. Just how much shopping can Bahrain generate to keep these malls and centres going?
Meanwhile, the historic old suqs are fading fast – the Manama Suq, despite a stunning beautification, is more a tourist attraction of a couple of hours. The Qaysariya Suq in Muharraq is the oldest in the Kingdom and genuine efforts have been made to improve it aesthetically and structurally but today it is a collection of ragtag shops manned by Asian employees, with very few Bahraini shop-owners in sight to show local stakeholder support.
In most good hypermarkets, the roastery section boasts of spices, dry fruits, nuts and masala powders piled picturesquely in wooden drums so that one can experience the tourist brochure version of shopping in the suq in air-cooled comfort and with ample parking space at our disposal.
What does this tell us? Except for the cooler months, people understandably do not want to spend their time getting hot under their collars as they navigate tight parking slots and wandering in the open to pick up a couple of shirts or home appliances when they can very well do so in the temperate zones of a shopping centre or mall. It makes complete sense for shoppers to take their custom to malls instead of visiting the suq shops. After all, we have new choices that didn’t exist about ten or fifteen years ago. Indeed the next wave is obviously going to be online shopping but given that our mall visits are 90% social and just 10% about actually buying things, I think it will be some time before that replaces mall visits.
Even the time-honoured tradition of weekly vegetable and meat shopping in the Central Market is fading because supermarkets and hypermarkets offer similar produce in what shoppers see as more hygienic conditions. Just before Eid this month, the GDN carried a disturbing story of a breakdown of air-conditioning in the meat section of the market and how it had destroyed the business for vendors of fresh meat. The market, which was the hub of wholesale business is fading, like the suqs. The big wholesale customers today deal directly with suppliers at their doorstep and refrigerated trucks have made direct delivery easier.
All said and done, we are at a point where shopping malls represent a new level of comfort and there is no need to get unnecessarily sentimental about the fading of open-space marketing which is better suited to temperate climes. Just like we happily ditched wind towers for air-conditioning in our homes, we need to move with the times and embrace malls as the new entertainment and shopping experience that has taken the sweat and dust out of our retail therapy. Having said that, six malls within a couple of kilometres’ radius seems like overkill. Do spare some acres for vegetation that will keep climate change at bay!