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The good, the bad and the ugly of the mall craze

By X N Iraki | November 4th 2018
Two Rivers Mall in Ruaka, Kiambu County. [Wilberforce Okwiri/Standard]

Last weekend, I went on an exploratory tour of Nairobi’s malls.

I visited two malls - Garden City and Two Rivers. In both places, I could hardly find parking space.

This might be partially explained by the school holidays and the pre-Christmas effect.

This is not unusual; many businesses make half their profits around the festive season anyway.

My tour was motivated by recent assertions from various quarters that Nairobi is “over-malled.”

Through observations, I wanted to find out the truth in this claim.

The crowding in the malls has nothing to do with our overflowing pockets. With no playgrounds or parks even in the most exclusive suburbs, malls have become the new playground of both the rich and the poor.

Instead of watching TV all day or idling at home, why not visit the malls?

In hindsight, the mall designers did not just design concrete structures, they also put a lot of time into studying our behaviour.

On this, they got it right. Wide open spaces make it easy to walk around, elevators and escalators do the same.

The designs of these malls add leisure to walking around. Once tired, there are food courts for you to eat. If not interested in food, you can always go for site seeing from different decks. The malls are designed to keep you there as long as possible.

If accompanied by children, there is no shortage of games for them. In one mall, there is even a well-kept garden for those who just want to sit and idle away. Once through with your site seeing, you can now shop for your necessities or luxury items. There are both local products like wine glasses covered with Masai beads. Imported electronics and perfumes are also in plenty.

The malls have brought everything under one roof, making it easier to spend money. They also ensure that you do not need to fly to another country to get what you want. This is the Dubai model.

The idea of the mall is that not that old with the first mall having been built in Minnesota, USA around 1956. The architect Victor Gruen, immigrated to the US in 1938 from Europe. He dreamt of “a community space where people could meet, exchange ideas and purchase goods and services.”

Incidentally, we had our traditional malls. In my last visit to Murang’a, I came across echoes of such malls at “Ndunyu Chege”, loosely translated as Chege’s market. There is also Dagoretti’s Ndunyu.  

The products and services sold through supermarkets espouse a cultural element, often subtle.

We buy many things we see in the media and the movies. This is why renaming Game supermarket as Walmart at Garden City Mall would make a huge difference. Kenyans have heard of Walmart but not Game.

Does it surprise you that Nigerians started buying our banks after Afrosinema became popular in Kenya? This is behavioural economics at work. It is not so different from colonialism and religion running concurrently in Africa.

Behavioural economics

Often forgotten is that malls can be conveyors of foreign cultures; I found Halloween costumes on sale in one mall, including pumpkins with “eyes.” The display of funny-looking items attracted many children. My last encounter with Halloween was students wearing skull masks in class in Kentucky.

The Kenyan malls despite the misgivings have come at the right time. With all the open spaces taken up by buildings, Nairobians have nowhere else to relax or have fun. Malls literary shepherd Kenyans into spending any time they are free.

Shopping has become a sport! This is why malls are expanding in Kenya despite the growth of online shopping.

Do we ever worry over bringing up children who think shopping is part of our leisure time? No wonder behavioural economics is enjoying its golden age even winning a Nobel Prize.

Think about shopping becoming a sport, but earning money is not. Even doing school homework is an uphill task and parents have to police their children doing homework and sign it off. This disconnect should keep us awake at night.

The success of the Kenyan malls hinges further on another factor - availability of information.

With the Internet, shoppers are aware of new brands and the status associated with them.

They are willing to look for them in the malls and see them “live” as opposed to seeing them on websites. The financially challenged can go window shopping, with most malls having pedestrian gates.

Improvement in road networks has also contributed to the success of malls. It’s now fashionable to visit the mall farthest from your home, particularly over the weekend when the traffic is light. With bypasses, driving from one end of the city to the other has become quite easy.

The location of malls is another ingredient of their success. Two Rivers and Garden City are on the “economic border line” separating the hustlers and the affluent. Garden City, Juja City and Thika Road Mall capture the crowded residencies on both sides of Thika road and the affluent.

Two Rivers, on the other hand, taps the affluent neighbourhood in the leafy Spring Valley, Thigiri, Muthaiga diplomatic neighbourhood along Limuru Road and Runda while also attracting the crowded Ruaka. The ability of the malls to capture the extreme ends of the social economic classes was a master stroke.

The crowds at the malls are a mosaic of Kenyans communities and faces. The rich, the poor, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, tall and short. It amazes me how money can create harmony.

The peace and tranquility in malls as everyone goes about their business points out to one thing; more Kenyans should become affluent. In the malls, there is no time for tribalism or racism we are all made equal by money. Is National Commission on Cohesion and Integration reading this?

Finally, how will the small towns and hamlets drained off their shoppers by the malls react?

And a riddle: We moved from kiosk to shop to the supermarket and now to the mall. What will come after the mall? Do not say online shopping...

The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi.

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