Rich mall, poor mall | Inquirer Opinion
No Free Lunch

Rich mall, poor mall

ONCE UPON a time, Cash and Carry was de rigueur—unless one could travel to Dau in Pampanga or Olongapo in Zambales, or, even better, shop at the PX and commissaries inside Clark or Subic (when the Americans still ran them). Having “Stateside” products in your home, be they Jergens soap bars, Nabisco Fig Newtons, or Cannon bath towels, was considered a status symbol. The most accessible place to find them was that little warehouse-looking (at the time) shopping center in Makati where Buendia Avenue meets Osmeña Highway. Or one could travel all the way to Dau or Olongapo to get them from stores surrounding the US military bases. Back then, SPAM was gourmet, PikNik was a rare treat, and Giordano apparel from Hong Kong was chic. A pack of Milky Way bars picked up along the way on a trip abroad was a pasalubong that had kids and grownups alike jumping for joy.

Even older millennials will probably be hard-pressed to remember this era and find it hard to relate to. The idea will be completely alien to the youngest of this generation.


Never mind the millennials, but many of my generation lived through that era when “PX goods” were especially sought after. We have come a long way. Imported goods from wherever are now readily available anywhere, and there is so much more variety to choose from. Milky Way bars, SPAM and PikNik are carried by regular groceries, while Giordano has over 40 stores all over the country.

Trade liberalization in the 1990s changed all that. The shopping landscape has changed so much over the decades and, with it, the mall industry is constantly growing and its network widening, even with the rapidly expanding online marketplace. Right now, it seems that the spreading plague of dying malls seen in other countries is not something Philippine malls are worrying about—at least not for a while, especially if mall developers are smart, as they indeed have been.


Filipinos have been enjoying a healthy mall industry for many years. The country has some of the largest shopping malls worldwide, and despite their size, they remain packed (“with an ocean of humanity,” a foreign guest once remarked). Mall owners must make considerable investments to minimize the impact on regular traffic flow of cars trooping into their parking areas. Filipinos flock to malls for just about everything. The largest malls have supermarkets for groceries; boutiques and department stores for clothing; movie houses, gyms, and other entertainment areas for recreation; government services; schools; banks; churches; and even medical centers with operating rooms. About the only thing I’m not seeing in the big malls are funeral services (which would literally have them carry us “from womb to tomb”), but who knows, that may not be too far in the offing, too.

How malls thrive in the Philippines shows that “malling,” as opposed to just shopping, is now a Filipino way of life. Who else but Filipinos would have visiting the big malls and factory outlets abroad as their idea of tourism?

Most malls these days, including the largest ones, cater to the middle class. The stores are filled with affordable staples and trends. Fast-food franchises with prices within the P100 to P200 meal price range are all over. Public transportation hubs are often nearby. Some even have “tiangge”-style sections for the budget-conscious. The movie houses are fairly cheap and accessible. The goal is to provide quick and cost-effective satisfaction of needs for the regular wage-earner.

But a more recent phenomenon, only a few years old, is the boom in high-end malls. These malls boast high-end brands, luxury goods, and local and foreign cuisine. There are now a lot of specialty stores for the discriminating tastes of a more sophisticated clientele. Clothing by known designers from all over the world fill the stalls. The movie houses offer 4D movies, butlers, and 360-degree screens—all feasts for the senses. All of these are special treats for those able to pay extra and can take the time to savor life’s best sensations.

Though high-end, rich malls are smaller than the “poor(er)” malls targeting the middle class, a still limited wealthy population cannot support these high-end malls on their own. SM decided to put up a high-end fashion wing in Megamall complete with Michelin-star restaurants, and a high-end mall in Cebu. New high-end malls like Century City and Estancia have just come to life. These suggest that the demand for such places is there. Perhaps we are just following a global trend that is moving away from the anchor stores carrying generic items. Either way, for these malls to thrive, sufficient foot traffic must be sustaining them. One might partly attribute this to status-seekers living beyond their means, trying to get a taste of, or at least project, the “good life.”

In a press release last month, MasterCard raised the concern that Filipino financial literacy appears to have declined since last year. It noted significant worsening in the category of basic money management covering budgeting, tracking expenditure, and paying bills on time. Are millennials, especially those in the booming business process outsourcing industry, prematurely upscaling their lifestyles with their newfound buying power, finding wider options to indulge their consumer instincts? Whatever it is, the purchasing power must be there.

If malling has become a Filipino way of life and our malls continue to expand or upgrade toward the higher end, as they are doing now, then perhaps it’s safe to say that our middle class is indeed growing, and that for its members, life has improved. That itself is good news.


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