4 things mall landlords in Singapore should do with their vacant units

4 things mall landlords in Singapore should do with their vacant units

It seems like just yesterday when all the cool kids were hanging out in shopping malls. These days, the only people who think the Orchard Road malls are cool are Chinese tourists and taitais with beehives.

Everyone else has abandoned local malls in favour of hipster cafes in ulu neighbourhoods, and people now prefer to buy their stuff overseas or online. Heck, the fact that even Johor Bahru is now considered cooler than Orchard Road says a lot.

Unsurprisingly, the malls that have pretty much taken over Singapore and strangled the life out of space-starved Singaporeans with their H&Ms and Uniqlos are now falling prey to vacant units.

The sometimes staggering increases in rents over the years coupled with falling interest from shoppers have made many tenants move out for good.

Now, if the REITS have been listening, they would know that Singaporeans are sick of buying the same old products in the same sterile environments. Trying to seduce retailers into taking up mall space may not be a long term solution if retail spending continues to fall.

Here's what they should do with those empty units instead.

F&B outlets

Singaporeans can do their clothes shopping online or even cut down on the amount of trinkets they buy, but the same can't be said about food.

Like it or not, we have to eat to stay alive. That's probably why Singapore's F&B scene is still thriving. We're some of the Asia Pacific's top spenders on dining out, and Singaporeans seem quite willing to pay for increasingly expensive restaurant meals.

And in case landlords are worrying that Singaporeans will start cutting back on eating out and start cooking more, they can rest assured in the knowledge that 65 per cent of Singaporeans describe their cooking skills as limited or disastrous.

We're also working longer hours than ever, and while time poverty makes online shopping a more convenient alternative to browsing brick and mortar retail stores, it also makes one more likely to eat out than go to the trouble of preparing meals at home.

Food and restaurants, not shopping, also form the top spending category of tourists from China, Japan, Australia and Malaysia last year.

Given all of the above, malls can probably afford to start allocating a larger proportion of their units to dining than retail.

Spa and beauty services

Spa and beauty services like massages, haircuts and facials can't be done online (Photoshop doesn't count), and there's evidence to show that Singaporeans are becoming more and more conscious about beauty and wellbeing.

For instance, one of the fastest growing market segments these days is male skincare and treatments. It looks like the entertainment industry has single-handedly turned a fraction of our local guys into Korean popstar doppelgangers. Not that womankind is complaining, I think.

And while skincare products can be bought online, people will still willingly go to a shopping mall for a facial or aesthetic treatment.

Our increasingly stressful lifestyles also mean that regular spa treatments are becoming the norm for busy professionals. And we're talking about glamorous boutique spas, not the lup sup kind.

Tuition and enrichment centres

If there's one industry that's completely recession proof, it's the tuition industry.

When the economy is doing well, kiasu parents feel justified in shelling out zillions of dollars on Ah Boy's GEP preparation classes. When times are bad, they panic and spend even more, because Ah Girl is going to need all the help she can get in this competitive environment.

And considering some tutors earn a cool $1 million a year, they might even be able to afford to high rents landlords are asking, before inevitably jacking up their own fees.

For those kids who already have an arsenal of tutors waiting for them at home each day, there are other types of education and enrichment classes their parents can enrol them for-chess training, toddler music, ballet, you name it.

Activity and recreation spaces

Some young Singaporeans are starting to realise that life isn't just about working hard, buying that HDB flat, raising your 1.5 kids and rewarding yourself with that Chanel 2.55.

That's why hobbies like Mixed Martial Arts, rock climbing and yoga are becoming so popular. People are also signing themselves up for art jams, poledance classes, escape room games and the like.

More importantly, spaces where people can enjoy their favourite hobbies or engage in some sort of activity are unlikely to be affected by the increase in online shopping, and can also double up as retail spaces.

For instance, Evolve MMA has a space at Orchard Central, while Real Yoga has a studio in the struggling CentrePoint.

Does all this mean retail is dead? Not necessarily. Many service providers are probably going to try to sneak in a retail element in order to boost their earnings.

So it might become increasingly common to pick up a new yoga mat or colourful lycra pants at the shop attached to your yoga studio after a sweaty class, or to buy a gift at that quaint cafe's retail space.

And frankly, that'd be a lot more interesting than another H&M.

This article first appeared on MoneySmart.


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