As we celebrate the emergence of more glamorous urban shopping centres with their cast of global retailers, spare a thought for the thousands of small cities across developing Asia where there isn’t quite enough spending power to support a full-sized regional shopping centre, store directory glowing with marquee names. But as Thai-based hypermarket maestro Big C ably demonstrates, that doesn’t mean you can’t generate vibrant shopping experiences in a quite different mall concept of your ow
own creation. You might not get the glam of a trendy big-city mall; there are no fast fashion retailers here, no H&M, no Zara. In fact, there are hardly any fashion stores at all, and that’s partly the point. This is a social concept through and through, built around food, entertainment and services. A closer look at the Big C model A perfect example of what Big C excels at can be found in the northeastern Thai provincial city of Sisaket, with a population just over 40,000, most low-middle-income. The Big C shopping centre is an unmissable landmark with its red and green livery on the main road into town. The centre is anchored by a Big C hypermarket and consists of the hypermarket itself and about 40 inline stores arranged in a racetrack formation around a large food court. In addition to the inline stores, the place is brimming with kiosks selling all kinds of personal accessories. Big C, which is operated by BJC, a subsidiary of Thailand’s TCC Group, has 154 hypermarkets in Thailand and one in neighbouring Cambodia, mostly configured in variations on the same theme as the one in Sisaket. They operate under what Big C calls a dual retail-property model, which in essence means that its hypermarket anchors a shopping centre, which it develops and operates, and from whose tenants it collects rent. The hypermarket is accompanied by ‘junior anchors’ (cinema, IT mall, game zone, for example), but in reality it is fair to say that the food court, which features an array of attractively priced local cuisine, is the primary co-anchor. However, the specialty tenants are an important source of income: Big C brought in THB 11 billion (about US$ 350 million) in rent in 2021 across its portfolio of approximately one million square metres. Surviving Covid Centres like the one in Sisaket have suffered greatly from lockdowns and other restrictions during two years of pandemic. The company did its best by improving product sourcing and curation to meet the needs of the day, such as higher demand for cleaning and hygiene products, home furnishings, appliances and computers. In addition, Big C provided online delivery service. But it was a tough time, and of 2021, a company spokesperson said: “The lockdown measures during the third quarter of the year, impacting selling areas of non-food products, limiting operating hours, and impacting our town centre tenants [led] to lower occupancy rate and higher rental waivers and discount levels, in stores located in provinces with strictest measures.” That includes Sisaket. Despite its distance from Thailand’s worst Covid hotspots, the province of which Sisaket is the capital was subject to draconian restrictions at various times, including mandatory 14-day quarantine for people arriving from elsewhere in Thailand. Big C’s results tell the tale: retail revenues across the portfolio amounted to THB 91.2 billion in 2021, down from THB 100.1 billion in 2020 and THB 111.4 billion in 2019. It was only in the fourth quarter of 2021 that sales began to trend upwards again on a year-over-year basis, as restrictions were gradually lifted. The Sisaket store is now buzzing with customers, but apart from those in the hypermarket itself, they are mostly not coming for merchandise but rather to eat together and socialise. Apart from the food court, the majority of inline tenant space is given over to sit-down food operators and personal services such as eyewear, banks and postal services. There is a cinema upstairs and a game zone. Then there is a whole phalanx of kiosk tenants selling beauty products, cut-price clothing and IT products. The use of space is exhaustive but well organised and at no time does the visitor feel that the place is cluttered and difficult to navigate. Offering affordable luxury and convenience In the hypermarket itself, Big C seems to sell across every retail category you can imagine, including a full-service pharmacy. The pricing is sharp as one would expect from a discount department store but the merchandising doesn’t lack for a smattering of affordable luxury. You can get Atlantic salmon and dozens of other out-of-province fresh food treats on the supermarket side of the store, and there are other nice touches. The Beauty Zone is a standout—an approximately 15×15-metre square carved out for hair, skin and other self-care products, as attractively lit, furnished, organised and merchandised as you would expect at a Sephora or comparable store. Big C’s retail operations are not restricted to these hypermarket-anchored shopping malls. The company also operates convenience stores, and in fact opened 155 of them in 2021 to bring the total in Thailand to 1353. It wants to more than double that number in the next few years. It also expects to have more than 270 convenience stores in Cambodia and about 250 in Laos by 2026. For even smaller markets than Sisaket where a hypermarket centre isn’t warranted, Big C operates supermarkets that have an expanded range of non-food items. To make these kinds of stores work, it is important to be able to edit the merchandise mix for the local market because a one-size-fits-all won’t cut it, particularly in a country like Thailand with strong local and regional variations in tastes. Big C is concentrating resources on better use of customer data to merchandise these stores. Keeping up with expectations When you have so many stores with diverse formats in so many markets, the capital expenditure and human resources required to keep them all up-to-date are formidable. Some of Big C’s stores are looking a bit the worse for wear and the company aims to renovate 90 of its hypermarkets over the next few years. It will certainly need to get close to that goal: it has competitors in each market that it operates and sometimes comes out second-best. Despite the soundness of its basic hypermarket centre concept, there won’t be much rest in the company’s c-suite.