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The call of the mall

entertainment Updated: Apr 14, 2011 14:08 IST
Pranav Dixit
Pranav Dixit
Hindustan Times
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How much money did you spend when you last went to the mall? I spent just shy of Rs 500 when I went to watch The King’s Speech a few weeks ago. I also whiled away about four hours window-shopping and chilling with friends before the movie started. My colleague Mignonne spent Rs 600 on movie tickets and croissants at BreadTalk on her last mall jaunt, and a considerable amount of time window-shopping in the air-conditioned environs as the rest of Mumbai sweltered during the city’s hottest day in 55 years.

Mignonne and I are a part of a growing tribe of Indians that throng the country’s 250 malls on weekends. For us, and most people, shopping simply isn’t the primary objective for going to the mall anymore. As long as we hang out and have a good time, what else matters? Malling, which is defined as ‘going to the mall with a large group of people with no intention of buying anything’ by UrbanDictionary.com, is catching the fancy of millions of us as the pastime of choice, especially on weekends, when mall owners report footfalls as high as a lakh and a half. What gives?

Everyone’s welcome
“The convenience factor of having everything in one place beats all other reasons,” says Arindam Kunar, vice president of the DLF Place mall in Delhi. “Most malls try to cater to each member of a family. You can stroll in at any time and the wife can go shopping, the husband can check out the latest gadget, the children can hang out at the food court and then everyone can meet up again for a movie and follow it up with a meal at their favourite restaurant.”

But for a lot of people, it’s the infrastructure – the sparkling loos, the valet parking, the security measures (and the free air-conditioning, of course) – that makes malls great hangouts.

“We even have services like reserved parking for expecting mothers and handicapped people, prams for children, free newspapers and free WiFi,” says Nirzar Jain, the general manager of Mumbai’s Oberoi mall at Goregaon.

Delhi-based homemaker Sangeeta Vishwa swears by the baby diaper-changing facility available in the ladies’ washroom at her local mall. “It’s a thoughtful value-add,” she says.

That’s all well and good. For us. The poor retailers (and that’s an oxymoron, if there was one) on the other hand, shell out anywhere between Rs 600 to Rs 750 per square foot of mall space they rent. If more and more people are simply malling, is that a cause for concern?

“Not at all! In fact, we want people to hang around,” says Pradeep Bhanot, brand head of Sunglass Hut, a chain of premium and luxury sunglasses showrooms that currently has 22 outlets throughout the country’s malls. “In our stores, the sunglasses are displayed in open cases. Anyone is free to simply walk in and try as many pairs as they want. For us, the more time you spend in the store, the better it is because even if you don’t buy on the spot, you’ll certainly walk in the next time you want to.”

Only 30 to 40 per cent of the people of people who walk into the store actually make a purchase, reveals Bhanot. “And that is a really good number,” he says.

Remember when you bought that Rs 1,400 pair of earbuds when all you thought you would do was window-shop? Impulse purchasing plays a huge part in making malls attractive to retailers. “More often than not, people who come to simply hang out are inspired to shop,” says Arjun Sharma, director of Delhi’s Select Citywalk mall. “It’s about creating the right mix of stores: if you spot seven stores selling jeans from between Rs 1,000 and Rs 15,000, you will be tempted to pick one that fits your bill. With stores like Mango and Zara that bring you great fashion at affordable prices, impulse purchases are at an all-time high.”

Even restaurants like Spaghetti Kitchen that have more mall outlets than standalone report that over 50 per cent of their revenue is collected over the weekend. Others, like Setz, located at Delhi’s DLF Emporio mall say that a substantial number of their guests are people who come to see a movie at the mall.

“Malls and movie theatres have a symbiotic relationship: people go to the mall to see a movie and end up buying something from the mall as a result,” says Pramod Arora, group president and CEO of PVR. “When you have a multiplex within a mall, there’s always something to do before and after the movie.”

The new town squares
At five o’ clock every morning, Mumbai’s Inorbit mall at Malad resounds to the thumping of many running-shoe clad feet. To Kishor Batija, Inorbit’s CEO, it’s one way of engaging with the community. “We found that people didn’t have proper spaces for morning walks and jogs,” says Bhatija. “Even the few parks are crowded in the mornings and lack basic amenities like toilets. So we thought, why not just let them run through the mall?”

The more you are familiar with the mall, he reasons, the higher are your chances of coming back to shop, which is why Inorbit mall now plays host to cooking classes, self-defence workshops and free music concerts.

Today, mall owners look at a mall as a way of creating social infrastructure. “Where are the community spaces in our cities?” asks Arjun Sharma of Select Citywalk. “That is the key reason why malls have become not only centres to shop and eat but also to attend cultural events. It’s our bit to engage with society and do what the government is failing at. As a father, I believe that our lives should not revolve around shopping centres. Not just malls, cities need to rise and our urban planners have ignored this.”

Does that mean that conventional hangout zones like India Gate in Delhi and Juhu Beach in Mumbai have lost out to malls? Not really, because not all people can afford malls, says Naresh Fernandes, consulting editor at Time Out India. “Even though you don’t have to spend anything, the architecture of malls is intimidating – there are security guards, metal detectors and that signals ‘keep out’ to people of a certain class,” he says.

What characterises a city is the diversity of its experiences, says Fernandes. But because malls are more or less the same all across the world, these are homogenised. “When I come to Delhi,” says Fernandes, “What I love is the older neighbourhoods, the small shops, the tiny businesses... each of these is a regional expression. The mall obliterates all that.” But because of the sheer number of people converging at malls, they have become the new town squares, he says.

Ranjana Sengupta, the author of Delhi Metropolitan: The Making Of An Unlikely City too thinks that conventional hangout zones shouldn’t be written off so soon. “Malls embody metropolitan modernity in the urban imagination. They’re the places where all the seductive delectables of progress and affluence are on show. I think that’s fine as it is one of several strands of India’s evolving story in this new century,” she says. “But it’s also a fact that much of the same people who hang out at Delhi’s Lodi Gardens or India Gate today also hang out in malls.”

Perhaps our urban planners need to wake up to the fact that very few new cultural and artistic establishments have been built in our cities over the last 20 years or so. Till that happens, the call of the mall is too tempting to ignore.

‘I can’t remember the last time I went to a local market’
— Rahul & Chandni Awasthi

It’s two o’ clock on a muggy Saturday afternoon and the Awasthi family has just strolled in through the automatic sliding doors of the Select Citywalk mall in Saket, Delhi. Temperatures outside are shooting through the roof and they look visibly glad to be in the air-conditioned environment.

That the mall is spread over six acres of land and is four floors high daunts neither Chandni Awasthi, a homemaker, husband Rahul, a commercial pilot, and children Rohan (aged three) and Saisha (five months old). In fact, they look right at home and know exactly where to go. “We go to malls about thrice a week,” says Chandni. “It’s perfect, because I can do everything – pick up my groceries, buy movie tickets, pick up a bottle of wine and not have to worry about where to leave my son because I can just put him in the play zone!”

The Awasthis do come to the mall to ‘chill out’, as they say, but they have this particular jaunt planned to clockwork precision. “You always get the kids out of the way first,” laughs Rahul. “Because if they tag along with you, they get tired and hungry and then you can’t concentrate on your own shopping.” The Awasthis head to Hang Out, an amusement centre for kids that has everything from a toddlers’ play area to adrenaline-pumping 4D rollercoaster rides. “He loves going on all the rides,” beams Chandni. “And it’s completely safe to just leave him here with his nanny.”

Their son, admits Rahul, is a complete mall freak even at his age. “We used to call him Amby baby because he has practically grown up in Ambience Mall!” he exclaims. “And he has to get his hair cut only from Looks, his salon in the DLF Promenade mall in Vasant Kunj – he refuses to get it cut anywhere else.”

Rohan is completely engrossed in the flashy lights and sounds of the kiddie rides and Rahul and Chandni step out of Hang Out.
A typical husband-wife tug-of-war ensues: there’s a brand new Maruti Suzuki Kizashi on display in the main lobby that Rahul really wants to check out. Chandni, on the other hand, wants to pick up some cosmetics from Inglot. There’s a rapid exchange of words before they decide to split up.

Rahul darts off like an excited schoolboy. Chandni shrugs her shoulders and walks into the Inglot store. “A major chunk of the money I spend in malls is cosmetics,” she says as a makeup girl tests blush on her cheeks. “And once a month, I splurge at least Rs 5,000 in salons. It’s just easier, ya! I do my hair, pick up gifts for friends and basically have a good time for a couple of hours. We do catch a play every month or so, but really, apart from that, there’s nothing else to do!”

She finds a blush and a lipstick she likes, pays for them and then heads out to the Mango store right across to check out some shades.

So does she do all her shopping at malls? “Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I went to the local market,” she says. “Except to have chaat or something. I frequent two malls – Ambience Mall in Gurgaon and Select Citywalk in Saket – and they have become like my market next door.”

On the flipside, she admits that it does pinch the pocket. “After the first two months or so, I realised I was spending massive amounts of money in the mall!”, she says. “Mostly because I used to buy a lot of things on impulse. Thankfully, I have learnt to restrain myself.”

It’s almost evening when the Awasthis decide to finally step out of the mall. “We need to go home and freshen up,” says Chandni. “Because we’re coming back for a movie.”
— Pranav Dixit

‘Where else can you go with a small baby?
— Jasbir & Hena Bolar

It’s only when I see Jasbir and Hena Bolar get out of their car in the parking area of Inorbit Mall in the suburb of Malad, Mumbai, that I realise it’s no picnic going anywhere with a nine-month-old baby. No wonder Inorbit’s become a familiar place for the Bolars, Hena a banker and Jasbir an advertising professional. Before they became parents, they would frequent the mall to watch movies and shop, like the roughly 1,50,000 people who visit it every weekend. But since Adaa was born, they find themselves coming here more than any other place.

“We visit Inorbit at least once a week to buy stuff for Adaa,” says Hena. Jasbir adds, “We keep needing new things for her.” The Bolars have even risked taking Adaa to the multiplex – “Luckily, she slept through the movie,” says Jasbir.

Hena also buys most of her clothes here and picks up food items not available with her local kirana. That’s a wide variety under one roof, she points out. “Who would want to go all the way to Bandra and beyond on a weekend,” she asks.

Today, the Bolars head straight to Mothercare, where they check out strollers, tempt Adaa with a toy giraffe and finally buy some clothes. Mothercare’s a favourite for Hena too because of its separate baby room facility. “You can change the baby and feed her in complete privacy,” says Hena. “It’s more private than the restrooms, even though they have a baby changing table also.” Jasbir chimes in to register his one grievance. “There isn’t any place where a father can change his child’s diaper,” he says.

After a spot of shopping at a clothes store, Adaa’s ready for her feed. While her nanny gives her a bottle, Jasbir and Hena list out why a mall makes perfect sense for a family expedition.

“It’s easier to shop at a mall because you can stay here longer,” they explain. “Anywhere else, you’d have to head home soon if you wanted to change or feed the baby. It’s easier pushing the stroller here than on uneven roads. Also, since the temperature stays fairly constant through the year, it’s an all-weather option for us.”

Finally, Hena asks point blank, “Tell me, where else can I go with a small baby?” Point taken.

True to form, Adaa falls asleep. Next, they head to the food court. “The food court is fast and convenient,” says Hena, “And unlike a restaurant, it’s noisy, so if Adaa starts crying, we don’t disturb anyone.”

Adaa wakes up and tries her luck at sampling a French fry, but is soon whisked away for a nappy change. That done, she’s enticed to sit in her pram as the shopping continues. The couple pause to watch Adaa’s laughing reaction to the song and dance routine happening in the mall’s lobby.

“The last time we were here, we explored the play area and figured there are a couple of rides there she can enjoy at nine months,” says Jasbir. “That makes one more reason to come here.”

— Mignonne Dsouza

- From HT Brunch, April 3

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