Arshid Malik

Introspectively, I have come to conclude that shopping mall culture is just not for Kashmir. We have seen so many shopping malls built over the decade in Kashmir with very little footfall. If it really happens to be, of what I speak, it could spell disaster for many business people in Kashmir who have spent crores establishing such malls and eventually take away a decent parcel of trade and commerce in Kashmir.

The near failure of shopping mall culture in Kashmir, does it owe its origins to unplanned investments in Kashmir or is it that the people of Kashmir are not the “mall culture” kind of people. I am unsure about the former but I am sure that the people of Kashmir love malls. As soon as people from Kashmir reach places beyond the mountainous confines of the Valley, they prefer hitting the malls first. Even to the extent of Jammu city which boasted only of a mall or two previously was seen booming with Kashmiri people in winters while during summers these malls wear a deserted look. If you talk about a city like Delhi or some other metropolis then you are sure to bump into more Kashmiris there than the natives of that place. Which implies that Kashmiris love malls and they love shopping and their spending power is decent enough to affect the growth of a market. I am a personal witness to the latter, since I was staying in Jammu for around 5-6 years. Every year with the onset of winters cheering Kashmiris wearing a happy-go-lucky attitude on their sleeves would “descend” like a “depraved” army into the markets of Jammu and take a good bite of whatever was on sale. Even the small-time snack sellers would make good off the partly official rendezvous of Kashmiris in Jammu. This was a period that the business fraternity of Jammu always looked forward to during the somberness of the summers. This would happen every year and the signs of welcome would float around in the main markets of Jammu bearing words akin to “Big Sale”. I talk of Jammu because it is very easy to make out the percolation of Kashmiri money into the economics of Jammu since Kashmiris are all too distinct than their counterparts which forms a major chunk of the State. And the humble twin malls would light up to the “fiery” shopaholic Kashmiris. Which derives us the fact that Kashmiris have enough spending power. So what is the issue here? Why aren’t malls doing well in Kashmir?

A shopping mall, as I figure, stands for a large, plush multistoried marketplace offering you brand names, loud music, great “fatty” food, elevators and escalators, lots and lots of glass, a good deal of cinema and above all openness. Mall culture is all about zeitgeist, fashion and pop culture. Going to a mall means that you are opening your arms to free trade and all, that you are willing to put a dent in your credit card spending, that you are willing to immerse in a neo-cultural diverseness – malls make their own cultures which in fact strips you of your own culture and if you are not willing to let go, you don’t belong there.

Back in Kashmir, we have a much greater number of shopping malls in comparison to our neighboring city of Jammu but given the “consumer combustibility”, the little number of malls that Jammu has definitely signify some buzz. Here in Kashmir, malls wear a deadened look. The few brand stores that adorn these malls are not able to set the vibe abuzz for the mall-goers in Kashmir with the lacking “basic” elements of cinema and loud music. The story goes – so you take your family, wife kids and all to a mall and hope to catch some latest flick, have some great fast-food or rather drool over hefty meals and in the time that settles, in-between you shop. The guys at the mall make some dough and you spend some. That is basic economics. What actually happens is that you manage to get some food down your esophagus and wander about for a couple of minutes and leave as there is nothing else left to do. You could have a cup of coffee but that again is food, liquid though. So you are basically going to an eatery and not a “mall”. Huge difference.

So, while I am at it, I would like to make an assertion here. I am not at all implying that we should have malls, or that we desperately need them. My take is simply a business-oriented one.

So the business fraternity interested down here in setting up shopping malls need to rethink its options and perhaps restructure their ideas a little, or perhaps a giant bit. And I am talking of this while malls across the globe are taking a big hit at the hands of the so-so-easy e-commerce. Yes, malls across the world are witnessing less footfalls with every passing year since it is so easy and cheaper to shop from the comfort of your home and with, excuse me, no sales people pushing you into choices you would never want to make. You can even buy something and with an after-thought cancel the order. And you have unprecedented variety at your fingertips. Top most brands from all across the globe and all it takes is just a few touches on the smartphone. “Online is clearly taking share from brick and mortar. … [T]his is likely to continue” opines the International Council of Shopping Centers. The Big Players call it “economic destruction” which spells apocalyptic for them. It is basically “economic decentralization” where small players have a big hand to play and was certainly bound to happen. Most influential brands are available online, having setup their own e-commerce sites, thus gradually withdrawing from malls where the profits sink. The food courts and stuff which worked their way around the retail brands are collapsing and eventually floor space is falling sick. With the internet offering high definition movie content over small subscription charges, equipped with high end HD equipment back home you would hardly want to go to a theatre. So that goes too. Within India itself, mall culture, which witnessed a boom over a decade over the buying power of the middle-class, has thinned and is sinking over a potent mix of high real-estate prices, bad planning and sluggish demand as the economy slowed down. These malls are struggling to keep up with competition provided by e-com players. So, while the mall story doesn’t stand too tall in today’s economy the world over, should we be building more malls.

Mall culture, globally, was structured around the middle-classes with its rising disposable incomes. That is true about the rest of the world, but here in Kashmir the middle-class is sheepish and doesn’t mean to play it out in open. This is because Kashmir is a pseudo-conservative society (when I use the term pseudo-conservative I really mean it and believe me it is a double-standardish kind of a trait) and it likes to stick to small-time niche markets where it manages to disappear – besides the set of other factors I have talked about previously. Compare the footfall in the Goni Khan market of Srinagar and any shopping mall in the city. The comparatives are staggeringly bold.


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