HK shops, eateries felled by soaring rents

The anguished cry of fashionistas is in the air.

H&M, purveyor of affordable slinky clothing, bane of listless men waiting for their female partners - and a must-go haunt for Singapore tourists before the Swedish retailer opened at home - is shuttering its flagship store in Queen's Road Central at the end of this week.

Unable to stomach a doubling in rent to HK$14 million (S$2.3 million) a month for its 30,000 sq ft space, it is the latest victim of record rents in the city. The chain has 12 other outlets in Hong Kong, of which only one is now located on the island.

Over the past year, casualties have ranged from big chains to mom-and-pop stores, with eateries particularly vulnerable. Moving in are deep-pocketed luxury retailers, jewellery chains and cosmetic chains popular with tourists, especially those from the mainland.

Fast-food giant McDonald's, for instance, is abdicating its space in Russell Street opposite Times Square in Causeway Bay. It will be replaced by cosmetic chain Sasa, which will pay HK$1.58 million a month, triple the current HK$500,000.

At the other end of the spectrum, Ngau Kee, the hole-in-the-wall eatery famous for its beef brisket in Gough Street at Sheung Wan, closed in April. Its owner Mak Ping Keung, who was paying HK$49,000 in rent, said the landlord no longer wants to rent the space to eateries - presumably because they are less able to pay.

Hong Kong now has the world's most expensive retail space, with rent hitting US$4,328 (S$5,500) per sq ft per year in the second quarter of this year, according to a new study by real estate firm CBRE out this week.

But there could be some relief in sight, with analysts saying that they expect the growth to moderate, after jumping between 30 per cent and 50 per cent since 2011.

"Broadly speaking, we are now forecasting a period of single-digit retail sales growth," says Mr Sebastian Skiff, executive director of CBRE Asia.

Analysts anticipate a slower expansion in retail sales, which has been driven by breakneck growth in mainland tourist numbers to Hong Kong in recent times. Last year, the city welcomed 48.6 million tourists, up 16 per cent over 2011. Of these, 35 million were from the mainland's swelling middle-class.

Looking ahead, this spurt could moderate, as Chinese tourists move on to the rest of Asia and then Europe. A slowing Chinese economy will also temper spending.

But already, the trend has transformed Hong Kong's retail landscape, especially in areas such as Russell Street in Causeway Bay, Canton Road in Tsim Sha Tsui and Queens Road in Central.

While the city's landlords have always been brutal in turfing out establishments that cannot cut it, the current wave of casualties has evoked nostalgia among Hong Kongers who mourn the loss of retail diversity, local small stores and traditional eateries.

"Previously, the market force was primarily local in character. Local consumers' preference shaped market demand," says sociologist Lui Tai Lok. "Now, it is primarily a tourism-driven market demand and it is driven mainly by 38 million mainland tourists. Their preference is rather monolithic but massive."

And the impact is not limited to the high-profile streets. Ms Susan Maclennan, Savill's director of retail, describes a domino effect where stores that used to occupy main streets - such as mass-market retailers - move on to second- and third-tier streets, in turn displacing local traders and antique stores. "Now, you cannot even find a stationery shop on Wellington Street," she says, in reference to a narrow one-way street in Central.

Indeed, administrator Suzette Soh, 30, recalls how the city centre used to be dotted with small clothing shops. "When we wanted to buy skirts, there was a variety of designs and sizes. With the big chains, they are all uniform," she laments, while rummaging through the racks of discounted clothing in H&M, currently holding its closing sale.

"And now, even this will be gone."

Retail casualties

1. H&M: The Swedish fashion chain will close its flagship store in Central which opened in 2007.

Where: 68-70 Queen's Road Central

When: Aug 25

Why: Monthly rent doubled to HK$14 million (S$2.3 million)

Replaced by: Zara, a Spanish fashion chain

 

2. McDonald's: It will move out of its high-traffic space in Causeway Bay, which it has occupied since 2006.

Where: 8 Russell Street, opposite Times Square

When: October

Why: Rent tripled to HK$1.58 million from the current HK$500,000

Replaced by: Cosmetics chain Sasa

 

3. Ngau Kee Food Cafe: The cha chaan teng (tea house) famous for its beef brisket closed after 62 years.

Where: 3 Gough Street, between Sheung Wan and Central

When: April 21

Why: Landlord purportedly refused to continue renting to eateries. The previous rent paid was HK$49,000.

 

4. Lei Yuen Congee Noodles: It closed shop after 42 years.

When: Jan 28

Where: Behind Sogo department store in Lockhart Road

Why: Rent doubled to HK$600,000

 

5. Leighton Bakery: Popular for its egg tarts and sausage buns, it closed after its owner sold the space in Causeway Bay for a profit.

Where: Matheson Street

Why: The owner had an offer he could not refuse - HK$140 million, 11 times the HK$13 million he paid in 1996.

 

6. Shanghai Tang: The luxury fashion house known for chinoiserie designs closed its 17-year-old flagship store.

Where: 12 Pedder Street, next to Central MTR station

When: October, 2011

Why: Rent went up 21/2 times to HK$7 million

Replaced by: American apparel retailer Abercrombie & Fitch

 

xueying@sph.com.sg

Additional reporting by Pearl Liu


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