In the Mideast and Asia, mall operators at the mercy of the pandemic are rethinking how they serve retail tenants and consumers.

CapitaLand, Singapore. Image: Joseph GTK / Shutterstock.com

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has raised new questions about the survival prospects for malls. Already under significant pressure due to the rise of ecommerce, some suggest that the current crisis could spell the end for many malls.

In some regions emerging from lock down, malls have seen foot traffic decline by as much as 85%, and some polls suggest that in certain locales, very few consumers will return to malls anytime soon.

In the Mideast and Asia, mall operators aren’t going down without a fight. Instead, they’re turning the pandemic into an opportunity to rethink how they serve retail tenants and consumers.

In April, the Dubai Mall, the largest mall in the United Arab Emirates, announced that it was launching its own virtual mall on noon.com, the largest ecommerce platform in the region.

The Emirates’ second-largest mall, Mall of the Emirates, also launched an online shopping initiative dubbed Trends At Your Doorstep. It consists of a catalog of products from select mall brands that customers can order from, with orders being fulfilled via home delivery. Trends At Your Doorstep is integrated with the mall’s SHARE loyalty program.

In Singapore, CapitaLand, the country’s largest retail landlord, last week announced that it is launching eCapitaMall, an ecommerce platform, as well as Capita3Eats, an online food ordering platform.

Through eCapitaMall, retail tenants, as well as select retailers that don’t have stores in CapitaLand’s malls, will be able to list and sell their merchandise. While COVID-19 prevention measures are in place, customers can have orders delivered to their homes. After preventative measures are lifted in the third quarter, customers will be able to pick up their orders in-store and place orders in-store for home delivery.

Capita3Eats functions similarly; at launch customers can have food orders delivered to their homes. In the third-quarter, they will be able to place pick-up orders and order ahead for dine-in.

Both eCapitaMall and Capita3Eats will be available through CapitaLand’s native CapitaStar app and its mall websites, with customers eligible to earn points for their digital orders under the company’s existing CapitaStar loyalty program.

Dubai Mall, Mall of the Emirates and CapitaLand aren’t alone in looking to ecommerce. Megaworld, a large mall operator in the Philippines, is also exploring ecommerce. “E-commerce is going to be a big factor as we move forward and as we conquer this pandemic. This definitely will herald a new era of ecommerce initiatives,” company VP Graham Coates recently stated.

Success will likely depend on existing brand power, strategy and a return to normalcy

While the imperative to embrace ecommerce is clear, it’s likely not all mall ecommerce initiatives will be successful. The existential threat the rise of online retail has created for mall operators — a threat that predates the Covid-19 pandemic — has revealed a significant rift between malls in terms of quality and survival prospects. Put simply, not all malls are created equal.

Large operators like Singapore’s CapitaLand, which has significant market share and operates some of the country’s biggest and most highly-trafficked malls, have a distinct advantage. Among other things, they are far more likely to have already established direct relationships with mall-goers through mobile apps and loyalty programs, which give them obvious advantages in launching ecommerce platforms of their own.

But even large operators with brand power aren’t guaranteed ecommerce success. The strategies they employ will also play a critical role in their success or failure. For example, homegrown platforms might be more costly to develop, but they could give operators a better opportunity to develop differentiated offerings that resonate with and deliver value to consumers.

Operators that partner with third-party ecommerce platforms may be able to launch offerings more rapidly and at lower cost, but those offerings might not stand out. In some cases, these operators may even find themselves competing against their own retail tenants. In either case, of course, a return to some degree of normalcy is also likely to be a prerequisite for success. As much as they may sensibly embrace omnichannel visions, mall operators’ raison d’etre is to operate physical retail spaces and it’s hard to imagine them achieving lasting ecommerce success if large numbers of consumers stay away from malls for an extended period of time.

While there are measures mall operators can take to help consumers feel more comfortable setting foot in their malls as restrictions ease, such as enforcing social distancing policies and adopting no-touch door openers, the reality is that mall operators find themselves at the mercy of a pandemic that they don’t control.