Last weekend KPMG (who do great luxury reports) invited me to Shenzhen to speak on China market entry at the Shenzhen International Clothing and Accessories Fair. I have a strong case of OCD for checking out malls in every city I go, so I stole some time to check out Shenzhen’s Mix City luxury brand shopping mall.
The second I stepped out of the taxi my expectations were blown away and I knew that Shenzhen’s Mix City (Mix C) was by far one of the best-designed luxury malls in China. And this was before I had set one foot inside the mall.
A major element of luxury mall design is the statement that the mall’s exterior and each brands’ facades creates. As the interior of most brands’ stores around the world follow an identical formula, it’s the external facades where architects have room to create something unique and impactful.
Just like a moth drawn to a flame, I was immediately faced with the dilemma of where to start my product pilgrimage, as each store seemed so enticing, with bright lights luring me into the cavernous cathedrals of brand worship. I felt exactly the same sensation when last August in Las Vegas when I first glimpsed saw Crystals City Center – the coolest luxury brand mall in the world.
Below I have covered in great detail the intricacies of designing and leasing luxury malls and what Shenzhen Mix C did right. If mall design isn’t your cup of tea, I recommend skipping straight to the photos.
Background: The Leasing Dilemma Faced by Mall Developers
Many shopping malls in China are just big block shaped buildings that face onto one main road, or at best are at the intersection of a multiple roads. When deciding store location within the mall, most luxury brands will try to take up positions near main entrances and with an external façade. The best location of all is at a main entrance or a street-facing corner of the mall, as this allows the brands to create much larger facades to attract more attention and customers.
Naturally, competition for these prime spaces is extremely high and in an average mall you can only expect a maximum of four to six main entrance or corner store locations. With such limitations, inevitably some brands miss out on their preferred space and have to settle for something else or decide not to open in the mall to avoid damaging their ‘proper’ brand image.
For developers, the leasing process for a luxury mall in China takes from 18 months to three years on average to complete. Creating an appropriate trade mix in a mall where all brands are satisfied with their locations and neighbors is a complicated and arduous affair. Each brand has very strong opinions of where they belong and which brands they should and shouldn’t be next to. It’s like creating a seating plan for a wedding, only much, much, harder.
So what did Mix C do right to create such a superb mall?
Mix C Maximized the Number of Flagships Locations
Shenzhen’s Mix C’s three-building layout is a fine example of a luxury mall design that has dealt with the space and leasing problem. By creating three separate buildings they tripled the number of corner and main entrance locations so that all the big luxury brands could be satisfied and no major brands lost face
Mix C is also the first luxury mall I’ve seen where the flagship stores zones were quite clearly divided between the luxury conglomerates with LVMH, Richemont, PPR and Prada SPA each having their own sections with equal sized flagship stores for their leading brands.
This grouping of each conglomerates’ brands isn’t done for the benefit of customers – who are likely to be ignorant of the fact that many brands are owned by the same big company. Rather its done to simplify the leasing process and manage the ‘egos’ of the brands.
At Shenzhen Mix C The Louis Vuitton flagship with unmistakable checkered façade takes up an anchor position at the south side of the mall and is flanked on one side by Dior to represent the two most prominent brands in the LVMH stable. Directly opposite Dior and LV lies the Richemont fraternity of flagships with Cartier and Montblanc both displaying large facades viewable from the street. On the far north end of the mall is the Gucci stand alone flagship from PPR Group.
Overall Shenzhen’s Mix C managed to satisfy at least ten major brands with Bulgari, Burberry, Dolce & Gabbana, Hermes and Ermenegildo Zegna also having prominent stores with massive facades dispersed throughout the complex. The closest I’ve come to seeing anything like this is in Hong Kong’s Central and Canton Road districts.
Mix C Created a Lively yet Sophisticated Watch and Jewelry Zone
While many luxury watch and jewelry brands like to be positioned close to the big fashion brands, it’s often the case that a person shopping for a luxury watch or jewelry isn’t on the same mission as someone shopping for fashion items. Therefore, it makes sense to create a distinct watch and jewelry zone within malls, but all too often these stores wind up in dead end corridors or quiet areas of the mall.
Mix C solved this very well by creating a dedicated watch and jewelry zone inter-dispersed with a variety of high-end restaurants and cafes that ensured consistent customer flows, yet maintained a sophisticated atmosphere that didn’t degrade the image of these luxury brands.
Mix C Ensured Consistent Customers Circulation to all Areas of the Mall
In China luxury brands are always located on the ground floor of the mall and this guarantees foot traffic to that floor, but getting customers to go upstairs can prove challenging. Hence the number of ‘ghost’ malls in China that feel completely empty and devoid of shoppers.
To combat this reluctance to go upstairs its standard practice for malls to locate food courts, cinemas, ice skating rinks and other entertainment facilities on upper floors to encourage vertical customer circulation. This sometimes works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
For me, the interior of a mall is as much about energy flow and vibe as it is about the brands and facilities inside. What constitutes a good energy flow and vibe? Open spaces, natural and appropriate lighting, clear lines of visibility and no dead-end corridors etc. In China this could also be defined as correct feng shui.
The energy is Mix C flowed very well. The large open spaces combined with well-located escalators and the department store created a sense of movement and discovery through out the mall. From ground floor I could spot people on the third and fourth floors. This made it feel like something was happening upstairs and encouraged me to investigate it.
Although department stores operate on a different business model in China to the rest of the world, they are important for success, and usually the biggest tenant in a mall.
The vital element of a department store in China is the ground floor cosmetics zone that attracts large numbers of shoppers and is also home to the luxury brands cosmetics counters. Most block shaped mall designs only leave the option to house departments stores at one end of the mall. Again, Mix C’s multi-building layout allowed them to place the department store in the middle of the complex which generated customer flows to and from the department store from every direction of the mall.
Taking Mix C’s Design in Context
Despite my ravings on the merits of Mix C it’s important to also put the analysis into context.
Firstly, I visited the mall on a Saturday night, which is likely to be the busiest time of the week, and may account for the large numbers of customers. I cannot vouch for the popularity of the mall at other times.
Secondly, its not be that other mall developers are lacking the design skills to create such a mall, but the limitations, elements and evolutions of each city will affect a mall’s design. Being in Southern China, Shenzhen doesn’t experience the extremes of weather that the north does and so they have more freedom to create separate buildings and expect customers to venture outdoors between sections. In northern Chinese cities with bitterly cold winters this type of design may not prove so successful.
Third, Shenzhen is also a very new city that has been built from almost scratch over the last few decades. This is a contributing factor to why Mix C was able to create a development with 360-degree vehicle access and maximize on external façade space and corners. Finding land to recreate a similar experience in Beijing or Shanghai plus the multiple other cities with hundreds of years of pre-existing infrastructure could be almost impossible.
Finally, the customer base of Shenzhen is mature enough to sustain a mall with such a fraternity of high-end fashion and luxury brands. Shenzhen is one of only four first-tier cities in China, and it has been the longest city to enjoy special economic zone status in China. This brought high-speed development, wealth and internationalization to the city. Far from an average Chinese city, Shenzhen felt more like Hong Kong or Taipei to me.
Finally, keep in mind that coolest and best-designed mall doesn’t necessarily been best performing! The two best performing luxury malls in terms of sales in China are Shin Kong Place in Beijing and Plaza 66 in Shanghai. Both of these malls have single buildings, without extravagant facades and are relatively quiet on the upper floors. Go figure!
Next time you visit a luxury shopping mall, pay attention to which door you enter through, which brands are located there and who has the biggest facade. It will give a good insight into which brands command the most power with landlords in China.