From shopping centre to exploratorium
As retail developers around the world attempt to integrate ‘experiential’ elements across the whole shopping centre, they will move the shopping centre model further and further away from its traditional moorings as a straight out transactional channel for goods and services. Perhaps it was inevitable that one of the casualties of this process would be the very term ‘shopping centre’ itself.
Nowhere is the crisis in which this term finds itself more evident than in southeast Asia’s newest shopping hub, Bangkok. It was here in January 2013 that Siam Piwat – one of Thailand’s largest retail developers – took the first swing by giving us the awkwardly named Siam Center ‘Ideaopolis’.
Now, three and a bit years later it has delivered to us the more pronounceable Siam Discovery ‘Exploratorium’, which it uses as a vehicle for perhaps the most profound rethink of the whole shopping centre experience to be seen anywhere in the world.
Siam Piwat’s extraordinary foray into experiential retail is as risky as it is revolutionary. The Exploratorium – a US$112 million remake of a pre-existing project – isn’t a venture for the faint-hearted. It represents genuine innovation in an industry where people too often use the word ‘innovation’ with the same reckless abandon as a child uses a water pistol.
Innovation at the ‘Exploratorium’ occurs in multiple dimensions across the 40,000sqm of gross floor area, whose unique architectural concept is the work of world-renowned Japanese design firm, Nendo, headed by Oki Sato. Sato conjures up a visual spectacular inside the Exploratorium that could trick the visitors into thinking they are in a design museum. Upon entering the building you know you are in some place special – and it ain’t the kind of shopping centre we have come to know so well.
Further eschewing shopping centre naming conventions, each of the six levels of Siam Discovery is called a ‘lab’ – so, the floor dedicated to toys, sporting goods and hobbies is dubbed the ‘Play Lab’, the technology floor is the ‘Digital Lab’, the home décor floor is the ‘Creative Lab’, and the fashion floors are ‘Her Lab’, ‘His Lab’ and ‘Street Lab’.
The lab theme is embedded repeatedly in design features all around the Exploratorium, including elements that represent beakers, test tubes, microscopes, molecules and DNA strands.
While the execution of the Exploratorium’s design themes is arresting enough, the visitor is also constantly engaged by interactive features throughout the centre.
For example, in a stunning convergence of the digital and physical worlds, visitors can stand in a rectangular room and watch the contents of their Instagram accounts displayed on a long plasma-filled wall.
Hybrid retail – curated by landlord
As excellent as the experiential features of the centre are, Siam Piwat has not forgotten about merchandising. Siam Discovery is home to more than 5000 brands – but these don’t all occupy leased space. The Exploratorium is an exposition of ‘hybrid retail’, in which approximately 40 per cent of the floor space is Siam Piwat’s own curated retail space. Much of this is dedicated to products from emergent Thai and Asian designers.
Control over the space allows the owner to constantly rotate and refresh brands and merchandise, which creates surprise and drives repeat visits. The distinction between common area and leased space is blurred as one melts seamlessly into the other. Yet, there is no sense of congestion or impaired sightlines that one so often experiences in mall common areas lined with kiosk and carts.
The shopping centre professional, who is accustomed to assessing a centre’s size with gross leasable area (GLA), will find that concept less useful for projects like Siam Discovery, since the ‘common area’ is utilised so comprehensively for owner-curated merchandising and interactive features.
Siam Discovery offers many opportunities for product customisation. For example, Cazh is a boutique specialising in local streetwear brands that allows visitors to create their own personalised jeans, right down to the rivets, washes and cuts.
Meanwhile, at the Nike concept store – the only one of its kind in southeast Asia – you can have your name stitched onto your apparel and training shoes.
And Dressing Room – also operated by Siam Piwat itself – offers a private personalised styling service to help customers pull together outfits that are consistent with their tastes and preferences.
Rounding out the Exploratorium experience is the food and beverage, which occupies approximately 2500sqm of the project’s floorspace.
Originality is a hallmark of this category as well, with concepts like Billboard Café. The café is operated by Dean & Deluca but themed by one of the world’s most illustrious music magazine brands. No ordinary café, this one is visually spectacular and offers a slew of interactive features for music afficionados.
The Exploratorium’s lab theme would not be complete without collaborative working space for retail start-ups. This is provided in Discovery Hubba, an elegant co-working habitat that also puts on workshops and offers other assistance for small business.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Siam Discovery is the thoroughness and attention to detail throughout the entire project. No corners are cut, no space neglected. The focus on design, originality and engagement is relentless.
Now for the US$112 million question – will it be a commercial success? A project as groundbreaking as this one will need some fine-tuning to iron out kinks. But management is confident. Chadatip Chutrakul, Siam Piwat’s CEO, said at the project’s unveiling in May that she expected approximately 36 million people a year to visit the centre, of which about one-third would be international tourists.
If that target is hit, the Exploratorium will, financially speaking, be off to the races, and we are going to see a lot more ‘shopping centres’ trying to emulate it.