Hard times at Fun City tell cautionary tale for decentralised retail in China

August 28, 2014 / By  

Cimen Fun City opened a year ago as a major new addition to Changsha’s retail market. The mall contains a swath of mid-range fashion and dining options as well as a Poly cinema. Its crown jewel is the presence of H&M, Uniqlo, C&A, and Muji, which at the time of the mall’s opening was the greatest concentration of fast fashion brands in Changsha. Even ignoring the furniture market that occupies part of the building, at 160,000 sqm Fun City remains one of the largest retail properties in the city.

It also is one of the emptiest. A year after the mall’s heavily-promoted opening, Fun City employees often outnumber customers. Only the relatively small portion of F&B shops are regularly bustling.

Why is Fun City having such a slow start? Two reasons stand out.

One is location and accessibility. Fun City is nine kilometres southeast of the city centre, not far from the city’s new high-speed rail station. While the station area officially has been pinpointed for intensive development, residential building is still ongoing and current occupancy is limited thereby restricting Fun City’s immediate catchment. Accessibility is poor, with few convenient connections to downtown or other non-core areas. Metro access to Fun City is promised for the future, but the city’s first wave of metro completions is already boosting access to the downtown shopping cluster, tipping the balance away from Fun City.

China’s Tier II cities are not without examples of major shopping malls growing their business in line with the emergence of new districts. See for example China Resource’s MixC mall in Hangzhou’s Qianjiang New District, which grew into one of the city’s destination malls as the Qianjiang area matured. The operators of Fun City doubtless expect to follow a similar trend.

They may be tripped up by the mall’s second major problem: design. Fun City’s shopping mall portion shares the upper floors of its building with one of the Cimen company’s traditional furniture markets. While Cimen may have expected enthusiastic customers to come for commodes and stay for Uniqlo, the result feels more like a utilitarian furniture emporium that happens to sell fast fashion. Meanwhile, the more successful F&B and cinema tenants are ghettoised in a separate building, limiting their ability to generate foot traffic elsewhere. The shopping experience cannot compare with the more comfortable public spaces and inviting store layouts of wholly-owned downtown malls like ID Mall and La Nova – or the China Resources-developed MixC, for that matter.

Fun City’s uninviting shopping environment risks prolonging the mall’s maturation period, and even raises the possibility it could sink into a ‘ghost mall’ state before the neighbourhood gains traction. More troubling still is that there are nine other malls of 100,000 sqm or more planned for decentralised Changsha, often by inexperienced local developers – up the street from Fun City there is yet another furniture seller making its foray into commercial property. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Changsha has a looming oversupply problem, but developers will need to take more seriously the challenges of building successful decentralised shopping destinations.

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