So it is with the class of 2020, that unfortunate group of shopping centres that opened right in the midst of a perfect storm, when lockdowns, social distancing, mobility restrictions, international border closures and fear were reducing foot traffic to near-zero levels for months at a time. Worse, governments in Southeast Asia seemed to have their finger constantly twitching over an on-off switch for retail, food, and entertainment businesses.
For new centres, or those existing ones sporting fresh expansions or renovations, the only bright spot is that two years later they feel like they are brand spanking new, as though they have had a two-year long ‘soft’ opening.
Siam Premium Outlets Bangkok, US developer Simon’s first foray into Thailand, had the misfortune not only to open in the middle of the maelstrom, in June 2020, but also to be a factory outlet centre that was depending on foreign travellers for the lion’s share of its business. Thailand’s border had closed more than two months beforehand and it was to remain closed (with the exception of the ‘Phuket sandbox’ scheme that just held the door slightly ajar for a few months) until November 2021. As of this 1 July, entrance requirements will normalise and for the first time since the pandemic began, visitors will be able to rock up at the country’s international airports without testing, quarantine, vaccination or any other requirement. For Siam Premium Outlets Bangkok, it could be the beginning of something special.
A successful design
Simon’s centre is on the main tollway between Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport and the resort city of Pattaya 90 minutes to the south. It is a 50/50 joint venture with Siam Piwat, a local developer with a track record of successful ‘full-price’ malls in downtown Bangkok.
The centre has about 200 stores accommodated in just under 26,000sqm of gross leasable area, making it markedly smaller than most of its other Asian outlet centres. (Its outlet centres elsewhere in Asia average closer to 40,000sqm.) The store directory includes a limited lineup of luxury brands, such as Bally, Balenciaga and Versace, but on the whole this is a tenant mix for the people, rather than the truly aspirational luxury shopper. The mix is far more around upscale (Kate Spade, Lacoste, Coach, Burberry, Jim Thompson) and mid-end brands (Esprit, Cotton On, CK, Mango, Skechers), which could make a lot of sense in view of the location, since Pattaya-bound tourists tend to be party-goers rather than people focused on really high-end shopping.
Simon has repeated its successful formula for the premium outlet centre layout. The project, pleasantly landscaped with greenery, water features and street furniture, is laid out in the customary single-level, open-air elongated racetrack configuration with satellite parking on three sides.
Patience – foreign headwinds still loom
The loosening of entry restrictions for foreign travellers is a godsend for the centre but it will take a lot of time before things actually get to where they would have been in the event there had been no pandemic. The Tourism Authority of Thailand is hoping that Thailand will welcome 7-10 million foreign visitors this year, then another 20 million in 2023. However, even the high end of that range would mean a 75 per cent reduction this year on 2019’s nearly 40 million visitors. Moreover, the composition of those tourists will be materially different to what it has been in the past. Specifically, TAT has gone on a marketing onslaught in India and the Middle East to compensate for visitors not being able to come from China and longer-haul sources in Europe and North America.
Realistically, the spending gap for Thailand’s many tourism-dependent shopping centres will not be filled until 2024 at the earliest, even then if certain factors are in alignment. Specifically, China, which accounts for approximately one-third of tourist arrivals in ‘normal’ times, has to drop the exit barriers for its citizens first, the war in Ukraine needs to end and recession in Western countries, now widely believed to be imminent, needs to be avoided. It seems like a lot to ask that all of these stars can be maneuvered into alignment in the next 18 months, but Thailand’s long-suffering retail operators are keeping their fingers crossed.
Assuming TAT’s most optimistic projection, Thailand’s three most important tourist cities – Bangkok, Pattaya, and Phuket – will, by the end of this year, have foregone an estimated US$42 billion ($60.6 billion) of retail, food and beverage spending by international visitors since the beginning of April 2020. The effects on major shopping centres in those cities have been devastating, and the knock-on impacts on the local and national economies brutal.
So the Bangkok outlet project enters at a difficult time; however, both developers do have a formidable track record. Nearly 10 per cent of Simon’s net operating income is derived from its international assets, which include 33 factory outlet centres with a combined floorspace of more than 1,000,000sqm. Seventeen of these centres are in Asia: nine in Japan, five in Korea, two in Malaysia and the one in Thailand.
Simon/Siam Piwat have the financial wherewithal and the retailer connections to outlast the drought. They have a lot of experience at playing the long game. Just as well, because the challenges ahead for getting Thai tourism back on track are still formidable.