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Redrawing China’s Fashion Retail Map

Brands looking to invest in new developments and rapidly changing shopping districts across China’s major cities are scrutinising locations harder than before the economic slowdown.
Customers visit SKP Chengdu, a park-like sunken shopping complex in the emerging Wuhou district, south of more established retail hubs in the Western Chinese city.
Customers visit SKP Chengdu, a park-like sunken shopping complex in the emerging Wuhou district, south of more established retail hubs in the Western Chinese city. (Getty Images)
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Key insights

  • The character of some shopping districts is changing as new malls and developments spring up across China’s largest cities in the post-pandemic era.
  • Some retail developers are pivoting to new consumer demographics while others double down on the most resilient areas and prime locations.
  • Brands are cautious to expand but growth opportunities remain in several key cities despite China’s weaker-than-expected economic recovery.

Last week, China posted another set of weak data that saw manufacturing and services activity shrink, adding to a raft of indicators confirming that economic recovery continues at a slower pace than many expected. Nearly a year after reopening from Covid-19 restrictions, China still faces soft consumer spending, a property market downturn and a slump in exports.

Retail sales only grew by 3 percent in the third quarter, with the recent Singles’ Day shopping festival eking out a mere 2 percent GMV (gross merchandise value) increase over the previous year. Given the uncertainty around the scale and timing of a future economic stimulus by the Chinese government, fashion companies are understandably cautious about expansion plans. Many are scrutinising budgets harder than before.

But with China still tipped to be next year’s single-largest growth market globally, according to a recent McKinsey report, there are significant opportunities for enterprising brands looking to enter new cities or penetrate deeper in areas with an existing retail network.

Apart from the established triumvirate of Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong, cities like Chengdu, Guangzhou, Chongqing, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Tianjin, Suzhou, Shenyang, Nanjing, Xi’an, Wuhan, Kunming, Dalian, Wuxi, Qingdao, Zhengzhou, and Changsha still often rank as high priorities. Real estate brokerage firms such as Savills track most of these dynamic gateway cities with dedicated retail reports.

But a lot has changed since the pandemic period when brands rushed to capture spending trapped within China’s borders. Shopping districts are evolving fast across major cities and new developments have sprung up as retailers adapt to shifts in consumer behaviour and the urban landscape around them.

Shanghai

With prime plots of land in Puxi, the traditional heart of Shanghai, growing scarcer, retail developers are shifting their focus across the Huangpu River to Pudong, the financial district known for its glitzy Lujiazui skyline.

Hong Kong developer Swire opened what is now a landmark outdoor shopping complex Taikoo Li Qiantan in October 2021. Drawing many high-end fashion brands, it is located in a new business hub area that’s styled to be the “second Lujiazui”. More recently, Swire announced in September that it would be ramping up its investment in Pudong, paying $1.3 billion for two more sites of riverfront land to develop.

“Pudong is undergoing a remarkable transformation under the Shanghai Master Plan 2017 to 2035,” said Tim Blackburn, chief executive of Swire Properties. “We see significant development potential for these two sites, supported by a wide range of growing infrastructure, including schools, hospitals, sports facilities and transportation networks.”

The new projects are in addition to Swire’s existing mall-office complex HKRI Taikoo Hui in Jing’an, and Zhangyuan, a shikumen-style heritage restoration project, that sits nearby, which opened its first phase one year ago. The latter has attracted major luxury brands including Dior, Gucci and Vacheron Constantin, with the full site comprising 40 historical buildings slated to be fully completed by 2026.

Over in Puxi, a new cultural district is forming by Suzhou Creek. During the last edition of Shanghai Fashion Week in October, the site was abuzz with activities. The area has developed at a fast pace in recent years. In 2021, the first phase of 1,000 Trees, a Thomas Heatherwick-designed mixed mall-office-residential complex opened. In November, Swedish museum Fotografiska opened its first Asian location beside the creek and Sotheby’s also chose it for the auction house’s Shanghai debut. It is also home to stores and showrooms by acclaimed local designers like Helen Lee.

In the leafy former French Concession, Anfu Road may still be the favourite crowded haunt of influencers, but nearby Yanqing Road is drawing some fashionable shoppers away. That’s due in large part to actor-singer Bai Jingting opening his store called Goodbai in May. The clothing and lifestyle store continues to attract long queues of customers and the street is filled with other stylish boutiques including Monday Sleeping Club, a reference to the “lie flat” movement popular among Chinese youth, Hidemi, and Spoiled Brat jewellery, as well as hip cafes and eateries.

Beijing

SKP continues to dominate much of the retail scene in the nation’s capital. While international fashion is concentrated around two areas — the main business district Guomao and the Sanlitun neighbourhood that is full of shopping, F&B and nightlife — areas beyond the Third Ring Road are becoming more relevant.

In January, SKP opened its newest shopping complex DT51 in the northern section of the city around the former Olympic Village. It is more lifestyle and less luxury focused than the flagship SKP location and adds to the company’s portfolio in the capital that includes the edgy youth-oriented department store SKP-S, a joint project with Gentle Monster. Because that property opened in January 2020 right when Covid-19 emerged in China it didn’t get as much international attention as it likely deserved. SKP-S utilises the same surreal and kooky interactive art the South Korean eyewear brand employs in its retail stores.

Another groundbreaking retail concept to debut this past year is The Box in Beijing, located in Chaowai just south of Sanlitun. Leaning into experiential retail, it is the second “Youth Innovation Centre” to open from developer Urban Revitalization Force (URF) Group after Shanghai. It officially debuted in September but the first day of its soft opening in May drew 80,000 visitors alone.

Other retail districts to watch in China’s major cities include:

Chengdu

SKP Chengdu is a massive 324,000 square metre mall that opened in January but it’s not immediately obvious to find. That’s because it’s Asia’s largest sunken shopping mall and, on ground level, it looks like a spacious public park. An escalator ride 30 meters down opens up into a world of luxury labels in the district of Wuhou, south of the more established retail offering from malls like Taikoo Li, MixC and IFS.

Sanya

On the tropical holiday island of Hainan, China Duty Free reigns supreme with its massive Haitang Bay shopping mall. But come 2026, LVMH-owned travel retail operator DFS is taking a seat at the table and opening what it calls a “seven-star” complex. It will be constructed in Yalong Bay, an area of the southernmost city of Sanya that is already home to many high-end resorts like the Ritz Carlton and St. Regis hotels but thus far has no luxury shopping.

Wuxi

The retail action in this city known for its picturesque lakeside location is bubbling up in Xinwu district. A second MixC mall will bow there this month, following two retail developments from Wanda — the Water Street complex and Wanda Plaza — and a Mono Plaza all of which opened earlier this year.

Hong Kong

Tsim Sha Tsui East is not a new shopping area but the past few years it has undergone a big pivot in the type of shopper it attracts. That’s thanks largely to K11 Musea, the crown jewel in the New World Development complex, which opened in late 2019, shifting attention away from Harbour City which served as the main draw for years. During the pandemic, it became a favourite with locals due to its many experiential, outdoor and leisure activities helping it to lose its reputation as a tourist trap. The larger complex of Victoria Dockside, which encompasses K11 Musea, has also started hosting large events such as the most recent Louis Vuitton menswear show.

Macau

In May, this “Vegas of Asia” welcomed The Londoner, the newest $2 billion resort on the Cotai Strip. The property was formerly known as the Cotai Central but overhauled to a new Anglophile concept, which includes a replica of the Big Ben, targeting mid-tier visitors. Over the next decade, Macao’s six licensed casino operators vowed to invest $15 billion to diversify away from gambling meaning the retail and hospitality sectors should spread across the special administrative region.

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