Bangkok malls ratchet up the tempo to lure shoppers

As more shoppers turn to e-commerce, malls in Bangkok are upping the game with new developments that combine retail with entertainment.

They're dangling more exciting visual and social experiences to counter pull of online shopping

What can you sell Thailand's eight million online shoppers that they cannot already get from a myriad of e-commerce sites?

At least one property developer in Bangkok thinks it may have found the answer - sell them a good time, all under one roof.

The Thai capital already has more than 20 big shopping malls including Siam Paragon, CentralWorld and Mega Bangna, but Thai Chinese businessman Chayaditt Hutanuwatra believes that ShowDC, short for Show Destination Centre, sets itself apart by offering shoppers an experience they cannot buy online.

"Thailand already has a lot of shopping destinations, but we are an entertainment destination," Mr Chayaditt, chairman of ShowDC, told The Straits Times.

Slightly bigger than Singapore's biggest mall VivoCity, the 180,000 sq m ShowDC offers Korean pop culture, Asian cuisine and tourist attractions said to be uniquely Thai.

Driving this change is the 326 billion baht (S$13.2 billion) that Thais spent online last year, a figure expected to grow by 16 per cent this year. Generic malls that used to draw crowds two decades ago now have to reinvent themselves to drag shoppers away from their screens.

Executive director of property consulting firm CBRE James Pitchon said that while e-commerce is still not a major threat to Thailand's brick-and-mortar retail, there is a mounting challenge for developers to build destinations that will make locals and tourists alike to be curious enough to come and be convinced to spend.

He told The Straits Times: "Retailers do not want to simply be a showroom where people come to look at their products and then go and buy them elsewhere. It's about looking for attractions that make people go and spend on entertainment, food and then some shopping."

ShowDC, for example, is banking on Korean fever. At its Star Avenue - which houses restaurants owned by South Korean pop stars such as Psy and Rain - seven-year-old Vanita excitedly placed her hand on an interactive panel as her mother took photos of her. "Taecyeon!" she gleefully pointed when Ok Taecyeon, a member of boy band 2PM, appeared on the screen.


Korean singer Psy performing at Summer Fest, part of ShowDC's week-long opening. His restaurant is one of many in the Thai mall. PHOTO: COURTESY OF SHOWDC

Nearby, Ms Nui Kanyapa, 32, and Ms Noo Kamonwan, 48, snapped selfies with wax figures of actors Lee Min Ho and Kim Soo Hyun. "I like it," Ms Nui beamed. "It's one- of-a-kind in Bangkok."

"It's definitely better than sitting in front of your computer watching concerts on YouTube," said Ms Noo.

Other malls in Bangkok are boosting the on-ground experience too. EmQuartier and The Street Ratchada both host Bounce Inc, a trampoline centre where children jump and flip to blaring music. "You can jump up and down on your bed at home but you can break the bed and it's not quite as exciting as bouncing with your friends," Mr Pitchon said.

For those reaching for the skies, the Gateway mall offers the Flight Experience, where a simulator lets customers pilot a Boeing 737.

The Rink in CentralWorld and Snowtown in Gateway are also popular hangouts for families, especially in the hot summer months.

Iconsiam, to open early next year along the Chao Phraya river, is combining entertainment with culture and luxury retail, with the first Takashimaya store in Bangkok, a heritage museum, a 3,000- seat world-class auditorium and a three-star Michelin restaurant.

"It will be the first time that such a large project in Thailand will present Thai characteristics in all aspects," said Mr Supoj Chaiwatsirikul, Iconsiam managing director.

Malls are also pulling out the stops to woo tourists. Some 34 million tourists are expected to visit Thailand this year, with the Chinese topping the list.

On top of its Thai attractions like a light-and-sound show inspired by the movie Avatar, and the stage version of Thai kick-boxing film Ong Bak, ShowDC also has Mandarin- speaking assistants as well as 24,000 sq m of space for a tourist lounge, bus terminal and facilities such as shower rooms, lockers and prayer rooms for Muslims.

Developers are recognising that shopping is no longer just a commercial exercise but an increasingly visual and social experience.

This trend, Mr Pitchon noted, has resulted in more space for food and beverage outlets, for example, because eating is a key aspect of the mall experience and it is an activity best enjoyed with other people.

Ms Benyapha Thanasakdiwat, 31, an ardent online shopper, lives a few minutes' walk away from the Central WestGate mall in western Bangkok, but has hardly shopped there in the past two years. Yet she still goes out to restaurants.

"My parents and I would still go to the mall to eat," she said.

Mr Chayaditt acknowledged that people's lives now revolve around their phone and the Internet. But he sees this as a tool for his business. "The Internet is helping people find us. But I built the platform on-ground where I can get everyone to come and play. A lot of things we do, you can't buy online. You have to come and feel it. You can't experience it through this little machine," he said, waving his smartphone in the air.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 02, 2017, with the headline 'Bangkok malls ratchet up the tempo to lure shoppers'. Print Edition | Subscribe