Monday, 26 September 2011

Mall Rats

Louis Vuitton at The Landmark in Central
Hong Kong is fast becoming one giant generic shopping mall.

Everywhere you look it's the same shops and restaurants over and over... brand names like Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Chanel, Tiffany & Co, Tod's and Prada... and it's the same eateries like Starbucks, McDonald's, Cafe de Coral, 7-11 and Circle K.

For the record we have seven Louis Vuitton boutiques and 10 Cartier shops and most recently at 20,000-square-foot Apple store.

Up until recently the city was thriving with multinational chains alongside mom-and-pop shops to add diversity as well as different price points, but the latter are fast fading thanks to the greediness of landlords. They hear stories of others charging double, triple or even quadruple the original rent and think they can do the same.

As a result many free-standing restaurants and shops have had to move or shut down, unable to find a spot nearby or at a reasonable rent.

Where I live in Sheung Wan there are many places boarded up for months or even over the past year without a tenant. Central too is seeing a dearth of shop fronts looking desolate and run down.

The restaurants along the Mid-Levels escalator used to be a refreshing change from glitzy Lan Kwai Fong, with their edgy spaces offering food and drinks at reasonable prices. But now that area is starting to be affected. After 12 years on Elgin Street, Fat Angelo's is closing. I actually never ate there, but I am shocked to see a place that should have a high profit margin serving big plates of pasta to hungry diners shuttered.

A favourite among many diners was M at the Fringe which closed down after 20 years because of rent increases. Restaurateur Michelle Garnaut is still looking for a space but says leases are so short there's not enough time to build the business.

"If you are going to do something properly, it takes time to build up a business and make enough money to cover the initial investment," she says. "Food costs are high, alcohol is expensive -- and labour is expensive, and there's a shortage of it. All these things make it difficult, which narrows the field to big players. There is very little room for independents."

Back to the fashion boutiques, not all of us can afford to buy LV bags everyday -- but our mainland counterparts are coming here in droves to purchase them at slightly cheaper prices. They are the ones who are driving up the rents.

Where does this leave us who live here?

It looks like we're stuck with this giant generic mall mentality for a while.

However with the Hang Seng Index at free fall at the moment -- today it closed at 17,407.8, down 1.5 percent with fears it could drop as low as 12,000 -- this might make some landlords realize it may not be that feasible to leave their shops empty and finally rent them out to some budding entrepreneurs.

Some business is better than no business.

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