Colombians Know How to Make Malls!

While shopping malls in North America are rapidly diminishing in popularity and being converted into Amazon distribution centers and other businesses that require a lot of space. Colombia has been going the opposite way, building more and bigger malls to meet the demand. What’s going on?

The main dynamic here in Colombia as in many other emerging economies is that shopping malls are safe havens for people to get together as well as to shop. People can drive from their gated communities to the mall and back without walking on any street. You go to the mall to do your banking, shop, have some documents notarized, eat a meal at a restaurant, work out, go bowling, go to the movies and even go for drinks.

Malls here do their share to lure people in by offering a variety of activities including roller skating, go carts, ice skating, Catholic masses (yep!), and patrons can bring their dogs to the mall! Going to the mall is often the event itself.

One notable difference is that Colombian malls tend to be built more vertically than horizontally and have lots of interior parking as opposed to exterior as is typical in North American suburban malls. Access via public transportation is usually very good and many malls have taxi stands right in their garages, offering convenience and security for patrons who don’t drive.

That said, not all Colombian malls are success stories. Sometimes they’re simply overbuilt. For example, the smaller Aves Maria mall in Sabaneta (Medellín area) ran into problems soon after opening and it’s still struggling more than a decade later while the huge Mayorca shopping mall also located in Sabaneta has duplicated its floor space during the same period. In neighboring Envigado, the smaller City Plaza mall suffers the same fate at the hands of the much more popular Viva Envigado shopping mall. All too many shops remain chronically without tenants in both Aves Maria and City Plaza. Note that the latter does have its loyal local followers as it has many of the basics.

I have seen a bit of a transformation in malls here over the last 15 years, where they tended to offer far too many goods aimed at the higher classes, the Cartier and Gucci crowd, now more and more options for normal people have found their way into the “centros comerciales”. There’s even a Dollar City in the snooty Oviedo mall in Medellín!

There is a downside to malls as they have an impact on street life. Mall designers here usually include a few store facades giving onto the street, but malls are otherwise monoliths, and combined with the endless number of gated communities being built, can turn urban streets into deserts. If there’s one thing I love about traditional neighborhoods is that they’re great for walking and full of life, and while I like malls, I hope they preserve the essence of the old neighborhoods and town centers.