From the first step inside Shanghai's K11 mall, it's clear the venue has aspirations beyond just selling things. The grand, glassy entrance looks something like the pyramid at Paris' Louvre.
And the crowds aren't heading to Burberry, Chloe and Dolce & Gabbana -- they're lining up for the mall's Monet exhibit, billed as the first on the mainland. (The promotional tie-ins are fun but would horrify art purists: Spend $270 at the mall and pose for free selfies in a retro photo studio with a beret, paintbrush and a puffy white beard like Monet's.)
In China, smart developers are reinventing the shopping mall, some by showcasing art, others by using spectacular architecture to create soothing, airy hangouts for escaping pollution and hectic urban life. Sophisticated consumers want more than shopping: Besides art, K11 also has free live music, a mini farm (where pigs are sometimes in residence) and workshops on baking -- a novelty in a country where few have ovens.
These are tricky times for malls everywhere, but particularly in China, where they have special challenges. For one, many luxury consumers are snubbing shops at home and buying abroad instead to avoid China's heavy taxes.
And shopping centers, especially low-end ones, are being squeezed by the country's booming e-commerce sector, which by some estimates has surpassed that of the U.S to become the world's biggest.
Despite those challenges, there's a mall construction boom -- 2013 brought about 129 million square feet of new shopping centers in China's 50 biggest cities, according to real-estate-services firm Jones Lang LaSalle. Amid the glut, some unwanted shopping centers have become abandoned "ghost malls."
So how can China's malls win back shoppers in the e-commerce age? Jones Lang LaSalle's Steven McCord, local director for China retail research, suggests karaoke, spas, gyms, children's playgrounds and community events like wine appreciation for adults and toy-making for children.
K11, perhaps China's most aggressive mall brand in providing experiences, showcases art in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Wuhan, and it has a foundation supporting contemporary artists.
The Monet show, with a ticket price of $16 and works on loan from Paris' Marmottan Monet Museum, is sponsored by Hong Kong-based jewelry giant Chow Tai Fook. It has drawn about 100,000 people since it opened March 8. This weekend, people waited an hour to get in.
In Chinese cities, "whether it's because of government restrictions or a lack of infrastructure, malls are starting to fill the gap left by a lack of cultural institutions," said Julien Lapka, managing director of Flamingo Shanghai.
Many Chinese crave sophisticated cultural experiences that can be hard to find in Chinese cities, he said.
"If you can come back from yet another weekend of shopping and tell your friends, 'Hey, I saw a Monet exhibition,' that's something to fuel to your social network and alleviate perhaps some of the guilt that people are feeling with continued consumption," he said. "It's putting a veneer of cultural awareness on what often is increasingly being seen as a hollow exercise."
Mira Zhong, a 29-year-old Shanghai engineering professor, made her first trip to K11 to see works by an artist she was familiar with from middle school art classes. "It's surprising this is in a mall," she said, surrounded by Monet's water lilies tableaux.
Along wtih serious Monet conferences, K11 is also offering quirky promotions on the Impressionism theme. The mall is spotlighting 11 products that, it claims, will "bring an Impressionism spring with classic style and gracefulness to you." The pick includes Chloe rose-scented perfume, pastel-hued bags from Furla and a $1,100 Blueair air purifier for filtering out modern-day pollution.
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