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Township shopping malls: Can they sustain big retail brands?
Posted by
Khumo Maluleke at 08:00

A look at Maponya Mall

Sowetans have seen the development of a number of shopping malls in the past few years, with the tenant mix coming to resemble that found in upmarket suburbs.

As a young girl growing up in Soweto I knew shopping to be a planned outing, a treat and an occasion. We planned our route, we dressed up and we knew where we would have lunch or dinner. It was usually on Saturdays, in the Johannesburg CBD. Then Southgate and Highgate Malls opened up, which were closer to Soweto, and our shopping distance halved.

We were excited when news of a mall that would be a "Sandton City in Soweto" broke, Maponya Mall.  We were excited because it would be convenient, and when it first opened its doors it boasted shops like Spitz, Mugg &Bean Woolworths (with the in-store, sit-in restaurant), Exclusive books, PUMA and Ocean basket, to name but a few.

Today things seem to be changing; each time I visit the mall yet another shop has moved out. I have my suspicions as to why the mall is losing its shine:

Convenience

Soweto is big and Maponya Mall is not convenient for most Sowetans. Soweto has more than 30 townships in it, and Maponya is not central enough for most of these. The taxi routes are a major obstacle to effective commuting in Soweto.  Maponya's lack of proper planning and consultation with the taxi associations was a costly mistake. Dobsonville residents need to take up to 3 taxis to Maponya, 2 to Southgate & Sandton, and 1 to Westgate. Who would want to go to Maponya given these 3 strong competitors? They have now launched the Reavaya rapid bus system, but Reavaya is also not accessible to most people. Maponya Mall may be closer to home but it's not convenient for most people, and if it is inconvenient it certainly needs to offer something special beyond novelty value for people to keep coming back.

Relevance and target market

Soweto is a diverse place - we have a fair number of middle and high class people, but we also have a high rate of unemployment and many poor people. Many of the poor frequent the mall, going there for aspirational reasons - though their aspirations don't translate into sales. There are people walking around the mall in their pyjamas, with dirty towels wrapped around their waists. Why would middle class shoppers, who consider their shopping to be a treat, want to be in the same space? The people who have real buying power have simply gone back to whichever mall they used to go to before Maponya opened up. Maponya Mall is targeting almost all Sowetans and in targeting everyone they alienate their core market.

The mall is not in a business district so having a shop like Mugg &Bean, for example, which is used primarily for business meetings, is a mistake. Who in the township - especially during the week - walks across to Mugg& Bean to have a muffin when most self-employed ladies in the township bake and sell cakes far cheaper than Mugg &Bean's?

When we travelled to Jozi CBD for weekend shopping trips we had a reason to have lunch at a restaurant - the distance justified spending on a luxury like that. But when I'm closer to home in Maponya Mall, I would consider it a waste. I would rather just buy a Cornish pie or a Chicken Licken cone ice cream.

Experience

I have taken an interest in Maponya Mall and go there to observe as well as to shop. I can boldly say that most of the shops do not stock merchandise that one would find in shops in the northern suburbs. I feel that I am getting township standard treatment and none of the benefits and range that shoppers in suburban malls get. Truworths and Woolworths, for example, are shadows of the shops you find in Southgate. The fashion is not the latest, the range is limited and their management will tell you that the shops are expected to earn the inclusion of certain merchandise. Why would shoppers choose to be surrounded by a sub-standard experience?

The buying power of Izikhothane

Don't underestimate the buying power that people from the township have.  They buy expensive brands even though many of them live from hand to mouth. For some of these guys it's about what looks good on them rather than what empowers them. Spitz will never have to move out of Maponya Mall because it helps give people a certain image, but Exclusive books could not last because too few of us were buying books. We do not have a culture of reading, so why would I spend R200 on a book that wouldn't do anything for my image? Although that's almost the amount most residents receive as a stipend from government, some will still find R3000 for a pair of shoes from Spitz to make them look and feel good.

Inspiration and camouflage

Survival for food is a daily struggle for most people in the township. We are looking for an image that will hide the suffering. No one wants to be seen as poor and so we camouflage ourselves under the Gucci and the Carvela in our struggle to fit in, hoping that this will be a way to escape the frustration of failure.

There is pressure to lead a fake life while you try to make it. If you don't fake it, you will not fit in and everyone will see that you haven't made it. We love decanting into packages that are "acceptable". I once moderated an interview about margarine and the lady told me she only buys "RAMA" because it is the best brand and makes dry bread taste better. When I asked to see her "RAMA" I noticed it looked lighter in colour than "RAMA" and when I interrogated her she confessed it was actually "ROMI" that she bought as she "couldn't afford RAMA this month". She did not "want her neighbours to know she eats cheap stuff as they will not respect her, they will feel sorry for her".

How can Maponya Mall be the "Sandton City in Soweto" when Soweto is not Sandton? It will not survive unless it is tailor made for the needs of Sowetans. Big retail brands will continue to struggle in Soweto unless they find a way to improve their shopping experience and to make their shoppers feel respected. Their product ranges need to be up to date and match the quality found in upmarket suburbs, while reflecting the unique needs of Sowetans. If they do not, their intended market will shop in the suburbs, leaving Maponya as an emergency shopping destination only. A retailer exists to make profits and is Maponya a ground for such?

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