CW 2015 UAE Infra Conf: Size matters

Dubai's retail market is fragmenting and although mega-malls are still popular, mid-sized centres need to diversify. Nick Ames reports.

David Clifton, Faithful + Gould
David Clifton, Faithful + Gould

The continuing evolution of the shopping mall – which has grown from a few shops with a roof over them in the USA to must-visit Dubai destinations with shark-filled aquariums, a giant crocodile, or snow covered ski-slopes – was a case for debate at the UAE Infrastructure Summit.

Looking at trends in retail design and build, the panel first addressed the issue of whether malls in the region, especially in Dubai, had reached capacity.

“What the mall is now is just a fraction about shopping,” said Martin Seward-Case of BWA Middle East. “It is a magnet – a drawing card and the retail function is just one of many.

“I remember the four-hour drive from Abu Dhabi to reach Deira City Centre mall where the main attraction was a branch of IKEA. Now, we have the Mall of the Emirates with its snow-dome.”

The discussion looked at how the proposed Mall of the World will sit alongside existing properties like the ever-expanding Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates. Panel members agreed that clients and developers would not put up the cash required for such massive projects if they did not feel that the demand was there.

The panel heard how the whole philosophy behind retail development has changed in recent years, especially across the Middle East. Instead of being just about shopping, it is now about a whole lifestyle choice, and instead of being a trip to the supermarket for 20 minutes, it is a day trip and destination.

“The word mall actually means the walking space between shops which originated when someone put a roof over some shops in the USA,” said Furqan Athar of McArthur+ Company.

“Then it was developed to make it more interesting. You would not come to a place twice a week just to shop. So fashion became a part of the mall – it also became a gathering space. And it is constantly evolving and in a way which depends on what society wants.”

The panel said the way forward for retail malls was to integrate them further with online shopping and make them more convenient with drop-off and pick-up points.

Members felt that the threat of online retail, which has had a destructive effect on high streets across Europe, would not be as strong in the Middle East because shopping trips are seen as more of a family event with malls serving as a gathering place.

Panel members also agreed that community malls – that serve residential developments such as Arabian Ranches, Discovery Gardens or The Greens – would most likely continue to prosper.

However, some of the older, medium-sized facilities would need to diversify and add their own unique features – such as the passport office in BurJuman or the visa centres that bring shoppers into Wafi Mall.

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