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This little piggy went to market …

…and this little piggy stayed at home.

Lumpini Night Bazaar is living on borrowed time. Although the leases expired in April, 2007, only a handful of stallholders have stopped trading and moved out some 6 months later. The big-wheel tourist ride may be long gone, but there is little else to suggest that the site is ear-marked for major development.

It could well be that the remaining “squatters” suffer the same fate as befell the bar and stallholders of Sukhumvit Soi 10 a few years ago when they too refused to vacate land that they had no legal right to occupy. They were paid a night-time visit by an army of heavies and bulldozers and the site was flattened after the landowner lost patience with them. Although the Lumpini traders don’t actually live on site, they will be hoping anxiously for a more reasonable outcome to the current impasse. They have the sympathy and support of many in Bangkok, both locals and farangs.

While the Soi 10 site is now a much welcome park, Lumpini Night Bazaar is destined to be developed into yet another mega-retail project. Does Bangkok really need another shopping mall? More to the point, can it support another white elephant?

Emporium, Siam Paragon, Gaysorn Plaza, Central World Plaza, Erawan, the Discovery Center, MBK, The Mall – the list goes on and on. They may cater to different budgets, but is there anything else to set them apart and why would a new mall be any different? What could it bring to an already saturated market?

Perhaps the hesitation of the Lumpini site developers may be a sign that the tide is finally turning on the mall tsunami. The Bangkok Post reported in the Business Section on September 17, 2007 that 22 out of 42 stores stood empty after only 3 years of operation at the Erawan Mall on Rathchaprasong Intersection because most of the high-end brand name stores had chosen not to renew their initial leases. Other outlets also suggested that they would soon follow suit due to their business dropping off by between 30 and 50%.

Most alarmingly, The Bangkok Post reported that the Erawan Mall still attracted between 7,500 and 8,000 visitors a day but this was clearly not enough to feed the insatiable beast. It begs the question, just how many shoppers are needed to fill Bangkok’s embarrassment of malls?

Volume alone may not be enough. It’s quality not quantity that counts in the upmarket retail business. Siam Paragon is the current flagship of the luxury malls in Bangkok, but even they are feeling the pressure. When I pointed out to a member of the Siam Paragon Sales and Marketing Department that the mall always seemed full, he agreed but he then asked me how many of the “shoppers” were carrying Siam Paragon shopping bags. The truth is very few. Siam Paragon is a place to be seen more than it is a place to be seen to be spending money. The source blamed political uncertainty, economic instability and even Southern unrest. There was no mention of market overload.

In these unstable times, it is the luxury malls that are suffering the most. Bangkok has long been a popular stopover for long-haul flights between Europe and Australia. Shopping has provided a healthy distraction for the travellers, but it is Chatuchak Market, the MBK Center, Pratunam, Panthip Plaza and other budget malls and markets that have drawn the transit-tourist dollar – not the high-end malls. Transit tourists on long-haul budget flights are looking for 500 baht fake Rolexes and not the real thing that they could buy at home. These are not the high rollers that the exclusive malls need.

So just what is the future of shopping in Bangkok? Perhaps cheaper, low-rise market-style malls with informal open air restaurants and terrace bars are the future. Maybe there would even be a beer garden or two surrounded by food stalls and a stage offering free entertainment. There could possibly be a large screen TV to show football on the weekends. Such a venue would surely be popular with both locals and tourists in the late afternoon and evenings as a place to shop, eat, chat, hang out and unwind. It would certainly have character and encourage a feeling of community spirit that the soulless malls lack. But where in downtown Bangkok could one find the space for such a cutting edge venture? Well, such a place already exists, but for how much longer is anybody’s guess.

Paul Snowdon – September 23, 2007

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