The end of lockdowns and gradual restoration of normal life in 2021 released a huge pent-up demand for personal interaction. Shopping, of all things, is a forum for enabling people to rub shoulders and now is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for retailers and shopping-centre operators to benefit from the potentially resurgent demand by creating positive experiences. The word ‘experiential’, after all, is one of the top buzzwords in the retail industry. So how have malls been doing? O
? On a recent afternoon, I headed out to tour six of Bangkok’s most famous shopping centres, strung out along a stretch of 3.6 kilometres of the city’s Skytrain. I started at Terminal 21 Shopping Centre, a travel-themed vertical mall in the busy Asok neighbourhood that, in times before Covid-19, buzzed with both tourists and locals. Terminal 21 is an explicitly experiential mall, and it has a Lush, which is one of my favourite experiential retailers. Lush shops not just invite but demand that the customer engages its products with sight, smell, and touch, and while they are at the high end of my price tolerance, the products are well differentiated and superbly showcased. In this location, Lush isn’t a traditional ‘inline’ store but a freestanding box in the common area. I pulled my mask down below my nose so I could take in the fragrances, occasionally interacting with one of the staff to enquire about a product. I wanted two items totalling the equivalent of US$26, and as I handed the money to the person at the register, one of the staff – presumably the manager – stepped up to me and said “Sir, it is the policy of Lush to cover your face completely with a mask when you are in the store.” I was so astonished that I didn’t know what to say. My reaction was mockery: for a moment I pulled the mask up right over my eyes. The manager didn’t want to confront my annoyance, either with an explanation or an apology, because she slunk away to another part of the shop until I left. What on earth are they thinking? Here is a leading retailer, whose shopping experience reposes almost entirely on multi-sensory inputs, saying to its customers that they must just buy on sight and recognition alone. A brand that has always promised an experience and now delivers an offense is flirting with trouble, particularly when it is Lush’s price range. Self-inflicted wounds Later, as I spent part of the day on a walk-through of the other malls, it became evident that experiential retail was under genuine threat, and the mall operators themselves are a significant part of the problem. After a long period of lockdowns, I had envisioned that malls and their tenants might adopt ‘Welcome Back’ themes, in which they celebrated the return of normality and cultivated the buzz that drives footfall. Instead of such a welcome, what I saw, repeatedly, was a slavish adherence to social distancing protocols that are almost guaranteed to put shoppers off. How? By constantly reminding them that they were potentially in grave danger if it were not for the tenacious interventions of the mall operator itself. Most obvious was the heavy-handed emphasis on keeping people apart. In the huge Central World mall downtown, signage was everywhere, reminding customers of something they came there to forget about: their own safety. Signs at the bottom of escalators informed shoppers that the handrails had been sanitised using “UV-C light”. Signs painted on the floor asked shoppers to “Please respect social distancing”. Other signs on the floor showed customers what two metres looked like, pleading with them to stay that far apart. Signs reminded customers that they must wear a mask at all times. Signs dangling from the ceiling above clothing installations reassured customers that “Tester items have been sanitised”. Signs assured customers that Central was “Clean & Safe”, that “employees passed a Covid-19 test”, “Employees are vaccinated”, “Our stores are clean and safe” and there was “Constant air circulation with sterilisation system”. My favourite was the sign posted on each elevator doorway diagramming how customers should line up, how to use the keypad, how to stand once inside the elevator and, of course, reassuring them that the elevators were disinfected every 30 minutes. All this, of course, on top of the temperature-taking and app check-in at the mall entrance that no one uses, instead preferring the sign-in book that allows them to enter false names and telephone numbers to avoid being tracked. Retailers were just as guilty. Still, after all this time, welcoming back customers not with open arms, smiling staff, new technology and promotions, but instead with partially taped-off entrances and duplicative temperature-taking and sign-in protocols, repeating what had already been done at the mall entrance. Could they be thinking that my temperature might have risen somewhere between the mall entrance and the store? Most of this has nothing to do with safety and all to do with show. To be fair, a lot of it has been adopted by the industry under pressure from governments, out of fear that if they don’t do it they will not be allowed to stay open. There is nothing wrong with sensible safety precautions that don’t get in the way of the shopping experience. But this is way over the top. Snap out of it Shopping centre operators and retailers have to snap out of it or their properties will not go back to the glory days. They need to realise that footfall will only return to pre-Covid levels if they stop reminding their Covid-fatigued populations about Covid. If they think that safety is the key marketing gimmick, then experiential retail is in a disastrous state. The shopping centres in Bangkok were a huge disappointment. After two years when they could have been incubating fresh customer-centric ideas, they have instead delivered a lemon. Not only because of the absurd signage and exhortations to stay distant from one’s fellow human beings, but because there was no new innovation to go with it: it was no easier to find shops, no easier to find or buy the right products, no easier to get assistance. Fortunately for them, the demand for social interaction and the eventual return of mass tourism gives malls a second chance. The last thing they want to do is mess it up by constantly reminding their shoppers that the world is a dangerous place.