It’s lonely at the top

Being at the top can be an isolating experience.

People have been known to do crazy things when they reach the apex of their professions, company, or government.

Charles Mann, in his extraordinary book on the post-Columbian new world order, ‘1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created’, describes the mayhem at the top in China’s late Ming dynasty.

One particular emperor evidently refused to meet with his ministers for 20 years, a record that would undoubtedly be envied by some early 21st century leaders.

Another became an alcoholic, and a third lived in the palace gardens, ignoring his duties of state while seeking immortality through alchemy and “prostituting hundreds of young women”.

Lonely as it is at the top of government, few things can be lonelier than trading or shopping at the top of some of China’s vertical malls.

Like many of my friends and colleagues in the shopping centre industry, I went to Shanghai for the recent World Summit organised by the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Movie camera in hand, I set off to explore and film Shanghai’s malls, including the nosebleed levels where it was rumoured that ghosts, goblins, and demons wandered among vast networks of cobwebs.

It turned out not to be as bad as that, but at some of the centres it is still pretty bad.

At Nanjing Rd for example, many of them are repetitious and too large for the market.

Some have recognisable ground floor anchors such as Zara and Gap, but by the time you reach about the third or fourth level it starts to get deathly quiet and vacancies increase, sometimes to as much as 80 per cent on the upper levels as far as I could estimate.

The few brave souls who do trade at these dizzying heights are perennially occupied not with customers, but with moving the furniture and tinkering with the displays.

It’s difficult to imagine how they convinced themselves – or let someone else convince them – that opening a shop up there was going to be a useful way to spend their time, much less a profitable one.

Not all vertical malls are so bereft of life at the top, and in many parts of Asia they represent some of the best shopping centres you’ll find anywhere.One example is the brand new Hysan Place centre in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay.

Hysan has 17 levels and the visual merchandising is spectacular all the way up.

Vertical connectivity is assisted by express escalators that run up and down along the inside perimeter of the building, affording spectacular views through the glass building shell as you travel.

The top three levels are occupied by a food court and upscale restaurants. The three levels immediately below that belong to a unique Taiwanese bookstore concept called Eslite, an eagerly awaited arrival in Hong Kong and the retailer’s first overseas store.On the weekend I went there the store was buzzing.

Eslite is not just a bookstore, but a revenge of the bookstore on e-commerce, with its huge book collections complemented by a tearoom, coffee bar, wine shop, designer gift store and departments for wellness products, fashion accessories and other items not typically associated with bookstores.

Hysan Place has much more to offer than Eslite and should mature into one of Hong Kong’s premier shopping attractions, with fierce competition coming from other centres nearby, such as Times Square.

Above all, Hysan demonstrates how it should not necessarily be so lonely at the top even of a 17 level centre, so long as the centre has good vertical transportation, pleasing design, and strong tenancies to draw shoppers up there.

* Michael Baker is principal of Baker Consulting and can be reached at and

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