On a recent visit to Hong Kong's Times Square with my family, they had no idea it was a vertical mall until I told them. My parents and sister had been on the two basement levels for an hour before I mentioned there was more upstairs. In fact, seven floors more.
I couldn't blame them for staying in the basement. For one, the center, located in the dense Causeway Bay neighborhood, has an elaborate and confusing design. Second, the basement has novelties galore to amuse any Westerner, such as square watermelons and a sushi restaurant with a conveyer belt from which customers can grab raw fish as it goes by.
While New Yorkers may scoff at vertical centers, shoppers in East Asia are used to them. Hong Kong Island has 128,000 people per square mile, double the density of Manhattan.
With land at a premium, the only place to go is up. Or down. However, vertical malls are not seen as ideal retail spaces. There are only a handful in the U.S. such as New York's Time Warner Center and Chicago's Water Tower Place.
The main drawback to the model has been getting people to the top. If you're a retailer on the upper floors, gravity works against you. “People eventually get tired and don't want to go any higher,” says Brian Honda, a senior vice president with architectural firm Jerde Partnership.
I didn't need an architect to tell me that. My 20-year-old sister summed it up. “It was kinda hard to go to each floor,” she said. “You had to keep going up and down an escalator.”
Also, the loop design of most vertical malls works against some retailers. Each floor in Times Square is a rectangle with an escalator at both ends. Shoppers can either walk the second half of the floor or go to another level.
“Someone's always losing when the customer makes a choice,” Honda says.
The Jerde Partnership recently tried to devise a solution to the dilemma. For the 1.8 million-square-foot Langham Place, also in Hong Kong, the firm designed more than a half million square feet of retail. In order to get people to the top, the longest unsupported indoor escalators in Hong Kong were built to the eighth and 12th floors. Once at the top, a spiral leads down, taking traffic past every store.
I didn't visit Langham Place, but Times Square has more than enough variety and glitz for tourists to enjoy. There are familiar stores like Tommy Hilfiger, Nautica and Timberland. Then there's the unfamiliar: i.t. which sells casual wear; Sam the Record Man, a music store and luggage retailer Mandarin Duck.
Times Square's most convenient feature is the grouping of similar retailers on the same floor. Electronics, for example, are on the top floor, probably in an attempt to lure gadget-crazy Hong Kong natives there.
As a mixed-use project, the center also has over 1 million square feet of office space, as well as upscale restaurants spread over four levels.
In the end, my far more fashion conscious mother and sister were impressed. “They have an absolute ton of stores,” said my mother. She would have gone back there if we had more time in Hong Kong. I think part of the appeal was because it was a vertical mall; a concept largely unfamiliar to most American shoppers.
While we may have more room to breathe here, perhaps some of the most interesting retail experiences are overseas in less open spaces.
Location: Hong Kong
Size: 900,000 square feet (retail)
Owner: Wharf (Holdings) Ltd.
Some stores: Bally, Bass, DKNY, The North Face, Anna Sui, Versace