Reviving Underperforming Shopping Malls

YL Lum



Every now and then we come across shopping malls which are either totally abandoned, unfinished or have only a handful of retailers and patrons.

In some cases, floors are blacked out indicating they are totally inactive and unpatronised.

In the  shopping industry, we call these “underperforming” or “distressed” assets – in layman’s terms, “dead malls”. However, we still see new malls crop up every year – in other words, while some malls are in distress, more are being born.

But if we make a careful observation, many malls are actually “surviving” rather  than being in totally “distressed” state. You would be surprised how resil- ient malls can be. Especially in Kuala Lumpur’s Golden Triangle, in the Bukit Bintang/Imbi Road vicinity, where many malls we once thought were dying have pulled through economic crises and are going strong.

Dinosaur malls

Their glory days may be gone due to strong competition but they are still active. Think of malls as being like dinosaurs in the Jurassic world: As the saying goes, “Life finds a way”. Go around your neighbourhood and you will find “surviving” malls and only a handful of dead malls.

Not only do T. Rex malls not die but some have also been resurrected. In just the past few years, major reinvestments were made in some older malls and they came back in a massive way – Sunway Putra  Mall (formerly  The Mall), Viva Home  (formerly  UE3), Fahrenheit 88 (formerly KL Plaza).

Here, some of these “undead” malls have been made alive and their performance is being  closely monitored by industry players.  How successful  can these turnaround malls be?

Overall, there  are key factors  vital to a mall’s success.  These include  the direction of the mall owner/management team, the retail or merchandise mix in the mall as well as layout, marketing, location and accessibility.

It is important for mall owners  and management to have a firm direction, to meet  the needs  of a captive  market segment, whether the immediate neighbourhood, the high-end market, the mid-level market or the masses.

Some malls have failed simply because they have fallen short of this important objective and become  “dead” due to the unrealistic aspirations of mall owners and/or management for high rentals and brand names. Much also depends on the professionalism and experience of the management team – whether it has the commitment and enthusiasm to carry off the mall’s strategic plans.

Having said that, not all mall management teams  have  the  necessary experience or exposure. To this end, the training of mall personnel is essential.

In the long term, malls must consider securing  trades  which are magnets, to attract  patrons. Again, some  malls do not succeed because their merchandise mix does not cater for their captive markets; for example,  they offer high-end merchandise in a lower-income location.

On the other hand, small neighbourhood  malls  can  be highly successful because they cater for the surrounding residents – families or a predominantly student population – with basic services like a supermarket, fast food, a laundromat, tailoring alterations or key-making.

Offer something new

Malls must keep themselves fresh and new, and offer the discerning shopper of today USP (unique selling points), be it a new retailer or F&B outlet in the country, a theme park or children’s activity centre.

The  mall’s  layout  needs   careful planning, too. Many malls have failed due to confusing layouts or dead corners where it is both difficult to rent out and for businesses to survive. This will entail realistic architects at the planning stage who are willing to consult practitioners about the practicality of their designs.

It goes without  saying location  and accessibility are crucial. This is because shoppers have a choice of so many malls and they will not have the patience for the extra effort it would take to reach a mall at the back of beyond or which is a nightmare due to traffic congestion.

So definitely location, location, location is one of the key factors in a mall’s success and this has to match the captive market segment.

In these days of intense competition, mall owners/management must be will- ing to allocate a mall marketing budget. For example, advertising and events will go a long way towards  attracting and retaining loyal patrons.

Right ambience

A “happening” mall with the right ambience is always more attractive than  an inactive one with no events.

In the end,  it is the survival of the fittest as competition among  shopping malls intensifies.

This is also a matter of perseverance as once mall owners/management identify their Achilles’ heel and are willing and able to spend money to rectify it, the mall may pull itself out of distress  and even successfully rebrand itself.

So the next time you pass a “dead” mall or an “undead” mall, remember – they can actually live longer than any of us. Some day, with the right timing and the right direction, they will soar like an eagle.


YL LUM is the vice president of the Malaysia Shopping Malls Association