To be honest, I quickly tired of the coverage leading up to and immediately after the opening of Mall of Africa in Waterfall, near Midrand in Johannesburg. Most of it was breathless, glossed-up regurgitation of tenant lists. Yes, it’s big (131 038m2, over 300 shops). Yes, it’s new. Yes, it has some stores you can’t find anywhere else in South Africa.
I had the sense to stay clear until the madness died down. But it was very busy this past Saturday – five weeks after its opening weekend. Developer JSE-listed Attacq (which owned an 82% undivided share pre-opening) estimates its value on completion at R4 billion (R3.920 billion, to be exact). Except, it’s not quite finished. Perhaps by mid-year (the end of its fiscal), its flagship property won’t resemble a construction site with a snag list the length of a novel.
Sure, tenants would’ve had all manner of penalties in place had it not opened in April (plus Attacq pushed that deadline to the very last possible day – Thursday 28 April) and yes, it had clearly not ever attempted something of this scale before, but why is there still so much unfinished? Chipped tiles, loose handles on toilet doors, sloppy painting, uneven plasterboard ceilings, with window after window and fitting after fitting held together with masking tape. It’s noticeably rushed (and makes Sandton City’s relatively recent revamp – parts of which were also rushed – look like the Sistine Chapel in comparison). If it’s in this state, can you imagine how bad it was on opening weekend?
Given the blank slate, there’s a lot to like. There’s an incredible sense of space (albeit with a few strange areas, especially near escalators, forced by pillars and other structural elements) and the centre flows well. There are some areas without space – in the low-ceilinged corridors to the carparks in the lower level.
But, because of the blank slate, in parts it feels almost too well designed. Some of the huge multi-brand tenants have ensured they command vast stretches of shopfronts for their continuously multiplying brands (the most of obvious of these was Truworths with its sprawl of Earthchild, Naartjie, Ltd, Truworths Emporium, Identity and YDE ‘stores’ lined up alongside each other). There’s something enjoyable about the serendipity and chaos from a shopping environment that hasn’t been planned to near-sterility. The precincts (Forest Walk, Desert Court, Great Lakes, Crystal Court and Oleum Court) are completely anonymous. I don’t get why they exist in the first place…
Take the huge retail goliaths (Woolworths, Edcon, TFG, Truworths, mrp and Cotton On) and their stores/brands out of the mix and you’re left with very little. Not surprisingly, given its travails, Edgars is not the largest store in Mall of Africa. Ten years ago and you could’ve practically banked on it. Rather, Woolworths commands the most floor space (a trend started in Hyprop’s recently-redeveloped Rosebank Mall). There’s something odd about that new flagship Woolworths, however. South Africa’s current retail king might be trying a little too hard (and the store doesn’t flow nearly as well as its other flagship ones). And, with recent Aussie acquisition David Jones now shoe-horned into the menagerie of other brands under the same roof, there may just be one too many ‘stores within a store’ (RE:, Studio W, Country Road, Trenery, Mimco, JT One, Witchery and David Jones).
The new generation Checkers Hyper would be giving me sleepless nights if I ran Pick n Pay’s Hypermarket business. Even its PnP on Nicol pales in comparison.
The highlight of the stores you can’t find anywhere else in South Africa is almost certainly H&M Home. It’s early days yet, but the range and pricing is spot on (think an ever-so-slightly more upmarket and trendy Mr Price Home, at similar prices). The Kooples is fun, Helly Hansen doesn’t have the brand profile it should (could?) have, and Zara Home is eccentric.
The longish queues continue at both Starbucks and Krispy Kreme.
More broadly, the tenant mix is a touch off. By its own admission, Atterbury has been “picky” with a “very specific idea of who we want where”. But the ‘blank-slateness’ of any new mall means a settling-in period of a few years is needed to get that mix right. What’s with all the hair and nail salons? It felt like there were a dozen of each! And there are far fewer restaurants than you’d expect (and certainly no ‘destination’ eateries… there are one or two of those 3km away at Waterfall Corner).
Interestingly, the Absa branch is ‘redder’ than you’ve ever seen, and there’s not a single Barclays logo in sight!
The teething issues will be gone in a month (parking machines seemed to be on perpetual meltdown on Saturday, necessitating a mall-staffer-with-cash-in-a-Checkers-packet system), the final dozen-or-so unopened stores should be trading, and the construction should finally be finished. Now the hard work starts of actually running a mall, keeping shoppers coming back and ensuring tenants don’t churn too much. There’s a way to go to reach the value of Hyprop’s Canal Walk (R7 billion). But this is a long game, with at least another 15 years of development ahead at Waterfall City. And one can only hope that any expansion is very carefully planned, to avoid the Frankensteinian nature of some other, originally well-conceived malls.
* Hilton Tarrant works at immedia. He can still be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.