Maponya Mall

  • The United Republic of South African Shopping Centres already covers 23.4 square kilometres, and continues to grow
  • Shoppers want convenience, but malls are getting bigger
  • Social isolation and troubled local governments bode well for shopping centres

By as early as the end of this year the combined size of South Africa’s shopping malls will be larger than nation state of Tuvalu in the Pacific Ocean.

That would make those combined shopping centres larger than four more honest-to-goodness countries, in the somewhat unlikely event that the shopping centres were to split off, declare themselves sovereign, and demand a seat on the United Nations.

But unlike Tuvalu, and its slightly smaller neighbour Nauru, The United Republic of South African Shopping Centres would not be at risk of drowning because of changes in the global climate. If anything experts are remarkably bullish about their future, and online shopping be damned.

The United States has been watching shopping malls die horrible deaths for years but South Africa keeps building. In July 2017 the SA Council of Shopping Centres counted 23.4 million square metres of shopping centre space, handily beating out Nauru’s 21 million square metres of country, not to mention the even smaller countries of Monaco and Vatican city. The 8% more shopping centre space already planned for 2018 will take the shopping centres within spitting distance of Tuvalu’s 26 million square metres.

Growth continues
  • Since 2010 SA has opened an average of 32 new shopping centres every year
  • On average new shopping centres are now more than half again as big as a decade ago
  • 1.9 million square metres of new shopping centre space is currently proposed

At the same time retail is changing. Online shopping has not had the same kind of  bite as in some other countries -- not yet -- but while SA shopping malls are growing in size shoppers have started looking looking more local.

“We are seeing a trend towards convenience,” says Anton de Goede, a fund manager and property analyst at Coronation. “People want to stop at Woolworths [Food] on the way from work and buy there, not at the bigger mall further away.”

Extend such trends ten years in the future, add in many more smartphones and much cheaper data and consumers no longer satisfied with mass-produced products stacked on shelves, and at least some malls could be in trouble.

“We’re looking at a more personalised, hyper-convenient retail experience, with tailor-made products,” says futurist John Sanei.

But in South Africa shopping centres are keeping up with the changing times, and unless cities and municipalities get their act together -- which seems unlikely -- US-style ghost malls are not likely to litter the South African landscape.

South African malls are just different from those in America, De Goede says. In the US anchor tenants tend to be department stores, not unlike the now defunct Stuttafords. In SA, on the other hand, anchor tenants are grocery stores: Pick ’n Pay, Checkers, perhaps a Spar. There are also newer “mini anchors”, such as Food Lovers Market, or part-retail part-service outfits such as Dischem.

Then there are social grants.

“We’ve had the social grant spending coming through in the last ten years, a lot of it in Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal, and the North-West, in previously underserviced areas,” says De Goede. Now you see malls there, with maybe a Mr Price, a Pep, a Capitec.”

The Villa shopping centre

Meanwhile the dark side of the same technology that brought us online shopping may work to the benefit of shopping malls.

Since the markets of ancient civilisations shopping has been linked to social interaction, says Chris Cloete of the University of Pretoria’s built environment department, the closest thing SA has to a professor of shopping centres. That has never changed.

“In South Africa, when you had a market day in the rural town every three months, that would be where people met potential spouses or talked about the weather. Then, 50 years ago, you had high streets in towns, and people would window-shop on the weekends when the shops were closed. Today that is not safe. So where do the teenagers and widowers go? They’re in the malls.”

Malls are adapting. Some are adding more entertainment and experience to shopping, others are making themselves go-to destinations for specific products. More online shopping will force them to adapt sooner, but nobody expects them to drown.

Not as long as local governments are distracted, in any event. The real risk to shopping centres would be public communal spaces, says Cloete, especially parks or other green spaces hard to fake indoors.

But he’s not worried.

“In South Africa city councils are under financial pressure, they have so much pressure just to provide basic essentials, they’re not going to fix parks and museums.