The Tuesday Take: The Thai Mall Experience

The Future of Brick and Mortar Retail is in Bangkok.

Central Embassy - Image by Ibraheem Youssef

Just uttering the word “Mall” in any Western context, conjures up ghostly mental images of an outdated retail concept. Sure, there are still interesting malls that lurk around here and there, but the glory days have largely faded into the past, struggling to find relevance in the face of e-commerce giants.

The main reason for this is twofold, firstly, the focus on pure transaction—get in, buy, leave, and sayonara—which has left malls cold and sterile. Secondly, embracing a band-aid solution when it comes to renovating outdated malls, applying a fresh coat of paint here, some marble over there and calling it a day. That is far from the case in Asia, and more specifically in Bangkok.

Malls are alive and kicking in the Far East and when it comes to defining the standard, Thai mall design is a breath of fresh air, emphasising immersive experiences and offering a modern engaging visual spectacle. It transcends mere shopping, embedding art, architecture, and gastronomy within captivating spaces that make each visit a journey through culture, beauty, and craftsmanship.


 

These malls are not just retail centres; they are modern commerce marvels that capture the spirit of Bangkok’s dynamism and creativity.

“Thai malls like Central Embassy, Terminal 21 and EmSphere are living proof that creating an experience-centric environment is key to revitalising this industry, and surviving the future totalitarian onslaught of e-commerce.”

Let’s explore together three malls that I believe capture the innovative spirit of mall design in Thailand, starting off with Central Embassy in Phloen Chit.

Central Embassy in Phloen Chit

Located on the former grounds of the British Embassy, Central Embassy has redefined the meaning of luxury retail in the city since it’s opening in 2014. Designed by Amanda Levete Architects, it boasts a sleek and sophisticated contemporary design that still feels future-forward 10 years on.


 

With its curvilinear forms, sleek aluminium finishes and consistent branding touches it effortlessly blends sophistication with futuristic elegance.

Now, whether you’ve just hopped off the BTS SkyTrain or braved Bangkok’s notorious traffic and taken a cab over, as soon as you step inside you’re greeted by an eight-story wonder filled with high-end boutiques, café’s and eateries that are all busy with people, all framed within a clean, minimalist setting.

“Retail Brands and the spaces that host them, should start thinking beyond the transactional not just to remain relevant, but to simply stay alive. Embracing experiential 360 design, will not only ensure longevity, but will inspire brand loyalty in ways that the transactional model can never match.”

And then, on the sixth floor is my favourite part, Open House, which I consider to be a masterstroke in creative retail and experiential design. Guests have the option to linger in this vast open air and exceptionally designed space, over curated books, culinary delights, and a myriad of art displays and I emphasise the term “Guests” as that’s how they are treated, far from being mere consumers.

To further emphasise the luxury experience and connection, Central Embassy is literally connected to the Park Hyatt Bangkok in a seamless manner, offering an all-encompassing, immersive lifestyle and retail experience. Moving on from this sleek and sophisticated experience to a fun and innovative one, let’s head to Terminal 21 in Asok.

Terminal 21 in Asok

Launched in 2011 and still standing strong, Terminal 21 is a fun retail destination that playfully merges the global with the local by offering a retail experience themed around an airport-esque journey through iconic cities.

Conceptualised and designed by The Office of Bangkok Architects (OBA), this innovative mall with beautiful open spaces and massive art installations emulates the cultural essence of places like Tokyo, London, and San Francisco, each floor boasting unique motifs that immerse visitors in the atmosphere of these global destinations.

From the maze-like streets of Tokyo featuring women’s fashion to the Union Jack motifs on London’s men’s fashion floor, every detail is curated to transport shoppers into a world beyond Bangkok’s borders.

Beyond shopping, Terminal 21 is a destination for global culinary delights and entertainment. The Istanbul floor captures the eclectic vibe of Turkish markets with boutique kiosks, while the San Francisco floor reflects its tech-savvy character with IT and electronics offerings alongside international cuisine. The Hollywood-themed floor brings an entertainment edge with a cinema and pop culture memorabilia.

Terminal 21 is a fine example of immersive and fun design, blending architectural flair with cross-cultural celebration to create a journey that celebrates diversity and creativity. It’s a testament that design is not only for the affluent and elites, but can be a fun experience that caters to the masses as well.

Now, let’s ditch the traffic on the streets & hop back on the BTS and move a couple blocks down Sukhumvit Road to Phrom Phong station and check out the newly unveiled EmSphere mall.

EmSphere in Phrom Phong

Designed by [au]workshop and part of the iconic EM District a mega-project by The Mall Group, which has already established icons like The Emporium and The EmQuatier- EmSphere emerges as the shiny new gem in Bangkok’s retail crown. This fresh development is a 200,000 square metre hub of innovation and luxury and a testament to the experience-first ethos of Thai mall design. This ‘mall of the future’ is designed in the form of zones.

From the Em Galleria, catering to fashion enthusiasts with a mix of global and Thai designer brands, to the Em Lifestyle, which aligns with the dynamic rhythms of modern life, and the Em Market, a foodie foodcourt heaven. Furthermore, The EmSphere introduces Em Wonder, a vibrant nightlife spot on the top floor, and the Em Innovation, showcasing cutting-edge products

A significant highlight is the integration of a large, pet-friendly green space known as Em Yard, that’s designed as a hub for relaxation and tranquillity away from the busy streets of Bangkok and finally there’s the Em Live arena, a state-of-the-art venue capable of hosting a multitude of events, managed by global giants AEG. Em-azing, eh! (Sorry, not sorry!).

As you stroll through EmSphere, Eye Candy is quite abundant and literally everywhere to feast on. With an open, airy concept and plenty of modern art installations that seamlessly blend into the mall environment. EmSphere is a venue that’s not just for shopping, but for socialising, chilling-out, checkout out new pop-up spaces, creative exploration and inspiration and overall fun.

In an era where e-commerce is gobbling up dollars & euros, won & yuan, where brick & mortar retail seems to be losing its lustre, Thai malls like Central Embassy, Terminal 21 and EmSphere are living proof that creating an experience-centric environment is key to revitalising this industry, and surviving the future totalitarian onslaught of e-commerce.

By embracing art, architecture, and human-centric design, these malls have woven themselves into the cultural fabric of Bangkok, offering a fresh template for the future of global retail. The global retail industry has a lot to learn from how the Thais do it.

Even the restrooms are bathed in style at EmSphere.

Simply put, the Future of retail is rooted in designing Experiences that delight, entertain and engage. The era of transactional brick & mortar retail is beyond dead, it’s extinct. E-commerce will always win in the transactional domain, because it has no overhead and is way more convenient for anyone that needs anything.

Retail Brands and the spaces that host them, should start thinking beyond the transactional not just to remain relevant, but to simply stay alive. Embracing experiential 360 design, will not only ensure longevity, but will inspire brand loyalty in ways that the transactional model can never match.


All photos by Ibraheem Youssef.

 

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