2017 has been a year of many apocalypses. Some have been long and slow, and totally dependent on your set of alternate facts. Others, like the “Retail Apocalypse,” are more concrete. Sears is collapsing. Macy’s is closing stores. Radio Shack is just a sadly vanishing ghost composed of budget phones and doo-dads. A generation of mall brands are teetering on the brink of nothingness while their VC owners-cum-overlords gorge themselves on debt and bank fees.

Take heart — there is hope on the other side.

In China, the “Retail Apocalypse” already happened. The four horsemen of e-commerce, rising real estate prices, increased travel abroad and rising consumer expectations combined to decimate China’s former retail giants: Department Stores.

China’s department stores were a vast empire of State-owned, six-story monoliths staffed by the unwitting heirs of Kafka — uncaring and deeply bored clerks more dead-eyed than a partially frozen sock-eye salmon. They featured a bizarre assortment of products: international brands from the ’80s like Pierre Cardin, State-owned Chinese brands with unpronounceable names, and hallucinatory “fake” foreign brands named after everything from American universities (UCLA) to French philosophers (Roland Barthes).

The four horsemen of e-commerce, rising real estate prices, increased travel abroad and rising consumer expectations combined to decimate China’s former retail giants: Department Stores

 

The “fakes” and leftovers and unpronounceables were laid out in a retail environment that resembled a Mad Men-era department store — kiosks and nooks with products and visual merchandising sort of haphazardly poured in little liquid piles rather than displayed with any kind of discernible intention to sell product.

Image via Maosuit.com

Every department store was designed with the same rigorous and lugubrious blueprint. First floor: cosmetics. Second floor: women’s stuff. Third floor: more women’s stuff. Fourth floor: men’s stuff. Fifth floor: sporting goods. Sixth floor: a dining area composed entirely of snacks, always including lukewarm dumplings, terrible noodles, and surprisingly good Korean food.

The strangest thing about China’s empire of department stores was that it was very difficult to pay. Like, basically impossible. After you decided that the shirt at Roland Barthes was in fact a shirt — and you brazenly decided you wanted it — the clerk would produce around 17 pieces of pink and green carbon paper and direct you to a register located… somewhere very far away and foreboding.

But the human desire to buy is like a cockroach, so when you finally made it to the register, a byzantine process of stamping and muttering would eventually lead to you paying in cash (you could only pay in cash). And the price tag was about 150% more expensive than any shirt sold in Hong Kong or Houston or wherever.

After you paid, you trudged back to the Roland Barthes kiosk, handed over the 17 pieces of stamped carbon paper and collected your shirt, usually already safely nestled in a bag advertising another brand or featuring the Latin name of a local tea varietal.

It’s real (source)

So obviously — spoiler alert — the internet killed these places.

Maybe our phenomenological romp through the dead Chinese department store helps you understand why e-commerce is big in China. It’s not hard to disrupt something that sucks.

Back in the physical world, strange temporal palaces that subtly shifted the meaning and goals of retail emerged fully formed. Instead of merely being places of “commerce,” China’s new shopping malls are consumption-as-experience, where sensory inputs only exist as a way to sell goods and services.

For me, the starkest example of the new Chinese shopping mall, the apotheosis of consumption qua experience, is called the Aegean Sea. It’s evidently a national chain, but I’ve only had the pleasure of patronizing the Aegean Sea in Xibahe, which is a sort of déclassé suburb-like space vivisected by the northeast vector of Beijing’s 3rd Ring Road. I live within walking distance.

The watermarks add to the effect (purchase here)

The Aegean Sea is (as you would expect) vaguely Greek and vaguely nautical in décor. There aren’t naked cherubs or tridents or a goat-legged Pan, but you get the sense that they were trying. There’s blue tile and some half-assed fish-ponds.

The design of the Aegean Sea follows a meticulously crafted, architectural logic of consumption:

  • The wide, slack-jawed space in front of the Agean Sea is a place for experiential event marketing, where corporations set up booths and do things like have kids rollerblade in figure-eight patterns around Monster energy drink cans.
  • The first floor is home to global fast fashion brands and their cousins with a slightly premium patina: Muji, Uniqlo, etc. There’s also an Adidas store with no Yeezy’s.
  • The second floor houses the weird Chinese brands and fake foreign brands we first learned about in dead Chinese department stores. Sadly, no Roland Barthes though.
  • The 3rd floor is all kid’s stuff. Both children’s clothes and knick-knacks and, more importantly, experiences designed for children. There are English classes and art schools and a place called Doctor Ma’s Baby Swimming where infants are deposited naked into a tub of water to flail and cry while their parents or grandparents take photographs. Or shop. Or eat.
  • Floors 4 through 6 are dedicated to restaurants and a movie theatre. The restaurants are a hyper-real ramble through every Chinese province, seemingly mediated by an American inspired chain restaurant… Sichuan a la Chili’s, Ningxia a la Cracker Barrel, Zhejiang also a la Cracker Barrel. There’s also a Sizzler and a perfectly credible bowl of Pho. It’s not all bad…
  • The underground levels of the Aegean Sea are dedicated to a vast supermarket. I don’t go there.
  • The effect of this ruthless architecture of consumption is to construct a space where experience is a safe, warm mush flavored by the spices of sales and marketing.

Instead of merely being places of “commerce,” China’s new shopping malls are consumption-as-experience, where sensory inputs only exist as a way to sell goods and services

 

Hungry? Go to the fifth floor. Need a t-shirt? There’s Uniqlo. Want to relieve yourself of the burden of parenting? Doctor Ma and/or English Best! are here for you!

From a business perspective, the focus on restaurants and children’s experiences is both critical and genius. People need to eat, and they will go where there are choices, even if they are vapid and sterile. People’s kids need “enrichment,” and all the better if said “enrichment” is in the same place as lunch. And, if you’re spending hours and hours in a mall eating and enriching, you’re pretty likely to buy a cardigan, or a microwave, or a Muji back-scrubbing brush woven from the fibers of your own sense of Veblen-esque self-superiority.

Not surprisingly, I spend much of my time at the Aegean Sea checking my phone, which sizzles and hisses with WeChat messages bombinated by the marketing technology apparatus employed by Muji and Uniqlo and Sichuan a la Chili’s.

“25% off,” my phone shrieks and whistles, getting slightly warmer.

In other words, what the Aegean Sea seems to be asking me is, “What’s the difference between me and your phone anyway?”