Review: Malls of Europe and South America

15 Aug

We didn’t limit our shopping to department stores, but that was the only class of shopping we did in nearly every city we visited.  Otherwise, our shopping experiences varied among cities.

  • In some, we visited malls.
  • In others, we visited shopping districts.
  • In all, we noticed the brands (marcas in Spanish) that appeared—and didn’t appear—in the stores.
  • And because we noticed the same brands, of course we compared merchandise.

A highlight of our visits to Lima, Istanbul and Paris were visits to the malls.  Yes, I know that’s tres Americain, but hey, that’s what I am.  We like malls because, in addition to shopping, they offer free air conditioning or heat (depending on the season) and, occasionally, other unique benefits.

Larcomar, Lima:  In Lima, we visited three malls.  Of the three, tourists are probably most familiar with Larcomar, a mall located at the edge of the tony Miraflores district and dramatically built into a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  In fact, it’s barely visible at street level because it is built below a city park.  Larcomar is situated across the street from a J.W. Marriott hotel and within an easy walk of several others, and caters to teens and tourists with loose change in their pockets.  The highlights of the mall are its food court (a little larger than most, with breath taking views of the beach and beyond) and adjacent restaurants, a few high-end tourist shops selling local wares of gold, silver, and alpaca wool, and several fashion shops aimed at teens and young adults.  To keep an eye on those teens from the moment they come near the mall, security guards are visibly stationed at the entry and throughout the mall.  Rather than traditional anchor stores, the mall has four “cultural” anchors:  a movie theatre, a restaurant that features a Peruvian dance show, a theater, and a branch of the Museum of Gold (it’s one of those rare instances in which the branch is significantly more impressive than the main location).   During my first, brief visit to Lima in 2008, we visited Larcomar a few times.  During this extended visit, we only visited once.

Plaza San Miguel,  Lima:  A second mall we visited was Plaza San Miguel–a compact, open air, recently remodeled mall in a densely populated lower middle class section of Lima, not too far from the airport.  All of the major local chains had stores there: stylish Chilean department stores Saga Fallabella (which was once Sears in the 1960s, but was sold off years ago) and Ripley, a number of local clothing chains, a small food court, and an outbuilding with a 2-story Bembos, the popular Peruvian hamburger chain whose Choco-Bembo (a soft ice cream cone dipped in chocolate) is among my favorite taste treats on earth.

Jockey Plaza, Lima:  But the mall we visited most regularly—partly because it is closest to where we stayed and partly because it is, without question, the nicest mall in Lima—was Jockey Plaza (so named because it’s next to a race track).  Jockey Plaza had nearly all of the same stores as Plaza San Miguel, but the store sizes were slightly larger, the merchandise selection slightly enhanced and, being enclosed, slightly more comfortable.  For example, both malls had Chilean home retailer Casa y Ideas (kind of like the Crate & Barrel of South America), but the Casa y Ideas at Jockey Plaza was larger and seemed to have a slightly larger selection of merchandise.  Plus Jockey Plaza had additional stores, like an Ace Home Center, the Plaza Vea hypermarket, and a flagship Tommy Hilfiger Store.

I later learned that, because Peru has fewer malls per capita than almost any other country in South America, real estate developers have aggressive plans to build them.

Forum Istanbul:  But we didn’t limit our mall shopping to Lima.  One of the highlights of our trip to Istanbul was a visit to the relatively new Forum Mall, a mall so large that it’s earned not only also its own subway station but also the title of the largest of mall in Europe.  And it’s big enough that I believe it—certainly felt as cavernous as the Mall of America and the West Edmonton Mall, but a lot warmer in fell in than the Mall of America and not in desperate need of remodeling like the West Edmonton Mall.

Security at the mall was the tightest I saw anywhere in Istanbul; we had to go through a metal detector when we entered the mall.  The corridors were more expansive than those in Jockey Plaza (or any other mall we visited), both in terms of width and height, only adding to the feeling that the mall is huge (as do the presence of an IKEA store and a full-fledged hypermarket).

The mall was relatively empty, not surprising for a Monday night in February, and to entice what little traffic was there, nearly every store had a sale.  And the merchandise was worth exploring; stylish shoes and clothes, housewares, and electronics.  We visited a large furniture store selling Mediterranean chic chests, sofas, and tables.

Among the surprises (besides extensive use of wood, curving lines, and varied ceiling and roof lines to give the place a chic, warm, engaging look) was the lack of a Chinese food stall in the food court (I had always thought that was  prerequisite) and the lack of a traditional department store (what anchors the mall?).

Grand Bazaar, Istanbul:  Forum Istanbul contrasted sharply with the other mall we visited in Istanbul: the Grand Bazaar, one of the oldest indoor malls in the world (though it does not bill itself that way).  A fixture in central Istanbul for over 400 years, the bazaar features hundreds of small shops (maybe 3 by 4 meters) grouped around themes: jewelry, leather, clothing, and so on.  The Bazaar is so huge that many vendors have more than one shop.  I realized this when I saw two that sold antique Judaica and, upon closer inspection, realized both have the same name.

Unlike Forum Istanbul, the Grand Bazaar was teeming with activity all the time.  And, in sharp contrast to the decorum of sticker-based pricing in the Forum, all prices in the Grand Bazaar were negotiable.  In fact, negotiating them is half the fun of being there.

One of the most interesting traditions we observed there was the delivery of afternoon tea.  A young guy would walk around with a tray that contained several glass cups filled with tea, and deliver them to the shopkeepers.  Instead of going out for a coffee break, shopkeepers had their tea break come to them.

Underground Mall at the Louvre, Paris: The only other city where we visited malls was Paris.  We saw two there.  One is the mall underneaeth the glass pyramid underneath the Louve.  The only thing notable about this mall was how un-notable it is.  Take away the choice location—underground next to one of the most visited art museums in the world—and its overpriced washrooms (to be honest, I have a strong belief that people have the right to pee for free)—with a McDonald’s, Virgin Megastore, and similar chain shops, most shoppers would be hard pressed to distinguish this mall from any other mall in the universe.

Quatre Saisons, Paris:  The last mall we visited was the Quatre Saisons (Four Seasons) Mall at La Defense, a new section just off of the island of Paris.  The mall had recently been remodeled.  It lacked the spaciousness of the Forum Istanbul or, for that matter, Jockey Plaza, but we enjoyed it all the same.  Like the Forum Istanbul, this mall had no department store as its anchor.  Instead, it had a two-story hypermarket and a French version of Home Depot as the anchors. The mall was huge and its target demographic seemed to be middle-middle class and some latter day YUPPIES. It featured the classy Paul’s bakery (which I would later learn is a chain and kind of over-priced), a Zara Home store (which we don’t have in North America and, to be honest, was a major let down; I thought the merchandise was a bit fru-fru in look and hi-hi in price), and Muji, the Japanese design chain hawking well-designed, deceptively simple housewares and clothing.  Among my favorite items at Muji are its tiny kits—clear plastic boxes that contain miniature sewing kits, office supply kits, and so on.  The mall also had two Monops (if I remember correctly) and the best looking McDonald’s I’ve ever seen in my life.

One other thing about this mall: it was the only place Parisians can shop on Sundays.  Not all of the stores participate, but it is the first to open on Sundays.

Shopping Districts
Although we didn’t visit shopping malls in other cities, we did visit well-traveled shopping districts, including the area near KaDeWe in Berlin, Gran Via in Madrid, and Bareclona’s Passeig Gracia   Of the districts, the Passeig Gracia was easily our favorite; an exceptionally wide street with Gaudi-designed street lights and benches, and a first-class selection of stores combine to create the type of shopping experience one would expect from a design capital of the world.

On our shopping adventures, we noticed some of the same merchandise but not necessarily at the same prices.  For example, we saw a clock with knives, spoons, and forks in Lima and Paris.  In Lima, the clock cost between 35 and 50 soles ($12 to $17.50) depending on size.  The same clock cost between 26 and 39 euros in France ($39 to $59).

We also encountered brands that we had not noticed in North America, including Camper shoes, Desiqual jeans, and Quick burgers.


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