Posted Date: 06/03/2012
By Robert Stockdill of InsideRetail.Asia
The signboard features a silhouette of a plane taking off and announces “Departure for Level G”.
There’s a giant LED display with times and boarding announcements, destinations and status. Attractive women sit behind information counters bedecked in the rags of cabin crew, complete with shaped hats.
But this is not an airport.
Welcome aboard Bangkok’s latest retail destination - Terminal21 - a unique shopping centre experience blending food, entertainment, global lifestyle brands and names you’ve never heard of into one of the most invigorating, mould-breaking shopping experiences in the world right now.
This writer has visited hundreds of malls on four continents and has never witnessed a more unique, on-theme execution of a shopping experience.
And more significantly, never such levels of customer engagement.
Shops can inspire, entertain, suck a consumer in the door, part them from their money and leave them exiting with a smile. But never has a whole shopping centre managed to achieve that in quite the same way as Terminal21 does.
Even discounting the airport livery as you arrive at the centre from the overhead Asoke Skytrain platform, the underground Sukhumvit railway station or the chaotic main drag of Sukhumvit Rd, there’s something noticeably different about this centre.
Stuck to the plate glass entrance doors are the usual stickers with slanting lines through pictures of skateboards, bicycles and dogs. But there is no diagonal line through the image of a camera.
Photography is actually encouraged in the centre - and don’t the Thais and hoards of tourists from all over Asia know it. We all know Asians love photography, and every floor of Terminal21 is filled with sculptures, props and replicas of foreign tourist icons, with people literally queuing to have their photographs taken beside them.
There are people with iPhones, Blackberries, pocket cameras, bulky SLR Nikons and iPads clicking and flashing away in a digital frenzy.
When you witness the phenomenon first hand you scratch your head and wonder why photography is discouraged in most western shopping centres.
Every day, thousands of people (and that’s without a whisker of exaggeration) leave Terminal21 with digital memories of their day out shopping. They share those images with their friends, post them on Facebook and local language forums, email them and set them as desktop images.
Not only are they constantly reminded of the experience and want to repeat it, they’re sharing the experience and encouraging others to visit the mall. It’s the purest, least manipulated form of viral marketing possible.
Terminal21 was always going to carry an element of risk. Most people love travelling, but many despise flying and lots of us wish we could avoid the whole crowded airport experience and just board the plane and get to our destination.
Yet here, in the heart of downtown in one of Asia’s most populous cities, we have a whole shopping centre replicating an airport experience.
And it works.
With more than 600 shops, cinemas, and a unique food offer (even by Bangkok standards) this is a destination which can soak up an entire day.
A huge part of the centre’s success, besides its astonishing engagement with shoppers, is the uniqueness of the tenant mix and store layout.
There are headline brands for those who expect them - Esprit, Paul Frank, Sunglass Hut, Promod, Thailand’s Jaspal, Levi’s, Adidas, Puma, Charles & Keith, Roxy, Quiksilver and Nike. But their ranks are heavily outnumbered by one-off stores and unique local boutiques, some of them on footprints little bigger than a currency exchange.
And here is the second secret: this centre is deliberately like no other.
You can go anywhere in the world and you will not find a shopping centre with such an eclectic, diverse range of retailers. Anywhere.
Then there is the unique style of precincting. Like any modern centre, Terminal21 clusters retailers of similar audience appeal to endorse the destination appeal. There are different levels of food courts and restaurants, foreign fashion brands (this is refreshingly not somewhere to find luxury brands in whose stores the majority of us cannot afford to shop), hip youth fashion, and the compulsory assortment of mobile phone accessories stores which seem to breed all over southeast Asia.
Terminal21 goes a step further. Milking the airport theme, each floor has its own branding aside from the floor designation.
Lower ground floor is Arrival Caribbean; ground, Arrival Rome; mezzanine, Arrival Paris; then, progressing upwards, Tokyo, London, Istanbul, San Francisco and finally Hollywood, where (sorry no prize for guessing this one) you’ll find the cinemas.
Each floor mixes a unique retail offer with symbolic props. Istanbul has a souk look, San Francisco a replica cable car, a seal emerging from a water feature and a giant copper sculpted crab. There are gardens with plants trimmed to the shape of dolphins ‘swimming’ through the air.
London has a double decker bus (of course), Buckingham Palace guards, an oversized Underground train (well, the original versions are pretty small), a wooden seat painted in the colours of the Union Jack and a Dr Who style vintage telephone booth.
Tokyo has a temple entrance and a sumo wrestler, Hollywood a giant replica of an Oscar - well, you should have the picture by now...
And, of course, every time you see one of these, someone is having their photograph taken beside it.
Every floor of Terminal21 has a different layout, so there’s always a sense of exploration and discovery for the visitor.
Terminal21, described by The Bangkok Post’s BK Magazine as “a nine-storey themed wonderland with plenty of cheap no-brand shops”, opened in October when much of Thailand was beneath water in devastating and deadly floods.
You could forgive the lack of fanfare at the time - the nation was gripped by the tragedy (some 500 people drowned) and for a time the capital city was under severe threat.
The 6 billion baht (A$182 million) centre boasts 40,000sqm of retail space.
Prasert Sriuranpong is executive director of Siam Retail Development, Terminal21’s management company. He says the developers wanted to create a sense of fun appealing to modern generation shoppers and offering something different from the mainstream industry.
The crowds which have descended on the complex suggest they have achieved their goal. Current foot counts are running between 50,000 and 60,000 visitors a day yet, while it certainly feels busy, it does not feel overcrowded or uncomfortable, partly because it’s spread over nine floors.
When it comes to design, there’s a decidedly vanilla feel to most modern shopping centre designs in the world’s most populous cities. It’s all too rare to find something sizable that breaks the mould, inspires and attracts.
Terminal21 is testimony to the fact that innovation and daring to be radically different can pay off.
The brave tenancy mix, the diverse floor plans, the unique airport terminal feel and the bold international theming of each floor of this centre deserves to internationally recognised for its innovation.
For the unmatched level of customer engagement and the overall ‘feel good factor’ this centre’s owners deserve to be rewarded with a level of financial return that motivates and inspires other property developers the world over.
For the full library of images from Terminal 21 visit the author's Flickr site