Southeast Asia is celebrated for its glitzy and wildly experiential malls. But as an antidote to maximalist retail design, a counterculture of local anti-mall stores are stripping back the shopping experience to focus on unfussy interiors, pared-back merchandise and community initiatives.

Globally, the pandemic has forced retailers to revisit their relationships with malls, and the retail landscape in Southeast Asia is no different. In Malaysia, some 300,000 employees lost their jobs due to mall closures, meanwhile in Jakartas Kota Kasablanka centre, at least a tenth of eateries and retail outlets have closed for good, according to The Straits Times.

Cover and above: Studio Lite’s design for lingerie and loungewear brand Neiwai at the Jing’an Kerry Centre in Shanghai is designed as a sanctuary to provide respite from the pandemonium of busy shopping centres. Photo: Jianquan Wu

As brick-and-mortar sales plunged up to 70 per cent in Singapore, shopping behaviours mostly shifted to e-commerce. In fact, according to Bain & Co, Southeast Asias digital retail share growth now outpaces China, Brazil and India. 

This doesnt mean the physical mall is redundant, however. Instead, it offers retailers an opportunity to reassess the purpose of the shopping centre and redesign these spaces for post-pandemic mindsets. Take the sheer size of the regions malls, for example. Southeast Asian shopping centres are renowned for their bigger-is-better approach to interior design. The malls owned by Bangkok retail tycoon Siam Piwat alone include an opera house, an indoor floating market and an aquarium for visitors to explore via scuba diving.

Simultaneously, a rising market for boutique retail is putting malls under newfound pressure. In Bangkok, a city renowned for its number of gilded and heavily themed malls, concept stores are offering a more relaxed approach to fashion and lifestyle shopping. Townhouse Space is a new lifestyle hub launched by Rom Design that occupies a 1990s multistorey residential building, offering shoppers a tightly curated selection of lifestyle goods from Thai designers. Open by appointment only, its a far cry from the overwhelming and highly sensorial experience of the neighbouring plazas. 

Townhouse Space is a new lifestyle hub launched by Rom Design in a multistorey residential building.

A serene shopping experience

Consumers in their millions are choosing to opt out of visiting crowded spaces. Its only a matter of time before the hygiene anxieties spurred on by Covid-19 impact the interior design of malls, which have typically been defined as enclosed indoor spaces centred around the gathering of people.

Researchers across the UK, US and Colombia recently found that shoppers experience higher levels of stress, lower levels of excitement, and greater difficulty focusing on a shopping task when in the presence of large crowds. For over a year now, we have been conditioned to avoid being at crowded venues, maintain social distancing from others and shop alone at retail stores when possible, in order to minimize human-to-human contacts and thus the contagion, argues Dr Jason Sit, one of the studys co-authors. 

New retail units are being designed as sanctuaries to provide respite from the pandemonium of busy shopping centres. Beauty and wellness brands are particularly well-placed to create these calmer store environments, with health already a central tenet to their business.

La Prairie, a Swiss luxury skincare brand, is making its Southeast Asia debut with a flagship store in Singapore. The concept store, which opened in September 2021, aims to provide a one-stop skincare haven, with a boutique aesthetic that is inspired by Swiss contemporary architecture. Most interestingly, the store has been designed to invoke a calm shopping environment, which La Prairie believes will be increasingly important as we learn to live with Covid-19. 

The intent behind this careful thought is to provide a sanctuary, hewed from wood, glass and stone: a nature-centric alternative to the harsh lighting and overwhelming bustle of most shop floors.

Swiss luxury skincare brand La Prairie has opened a calm shopping environment in Singapore.

Malls for the community

As Southeast Asias cities rethink the role of malls, modes of luxury and glamour are being eschewed in favour of civic purpose. As Kung Suan Ai, marketing director at Kuala Lumpurs Pavilion Reit Malls explains: Malls are a communal space for the community to socialize and spend quality time with family and friends and will continue to be such a place for us Malaysians.

Malls are gradually refocusing their gaze away from consumption and towards experience. On some level, this is already being achieved, with cinemas, karaoke bars and even theme parks being built into shopping centres, but to take this a step further retailers will be required to interrogate the more inherent needs and desires of the local communities.

In Bangkok, The Commons Saladaeng is a community-first mall launched in response to the citys lack of civic spaces. Unfolding over three levels, the centre comprises an eclectic lineup of food and beverage vendors, as well as a multi-purpose space, The Platform, to be used by locals. After working as a retail consultant in the US, cofounder Vicharee Vichit-Vadakan returned to her home city of Bangkok to address the problems in its retail market. Bangkok has many attributes, but civic spaces are not a strong point

The Commons mall, designed by Department of Architecture, functions as a community centre.

The Commons intends to fill that gap. With design by the Department of Architecture, initiatives include community fridges for surplus ingredients from vendors, sets from local musicians, yoga studios and dedicated nurseries. The Platform

Just across the city, the aforementioned Townhouse Space is also providing a platform for the local creative community. The store collaborates with artists and designers, hosting a rotating programme of workshops, exhibitions and music events, hinting towards a future in which malls and retailers will be expected to break out of their maximalist rut and instead look to amplify the work of everyday people in their local communities.