Dark alleys leading to elevators, lights dangling dangerously from ceilings, pigeons flying across vacant floors, beaten down mannequins scattered shoddily inside impenetrable, empty shops, discarded machinery, and an eerie feeling of a hasty abandonment – many of Delhi-NCR’s shiny, happy malls can make for a Halloween-haunted houses trail today.
Not too long ago, these malls were flush with new money, and middle-class dreams. The mall was the centrepiece of the urban India story, a sign of a city having arrived. The mall was India’s new town square since mid-2000.
By 2015, Delhi-NCR accounted for 25 per cent of retail spending in India, after Mumbai, according to a report by international property consultant Knight Frank. NCR ranked first among all the cities with shop sizes above 3,000 sq ft.
Today, the ghost malls are a complex web of stories about overheated markets, impossible, irrational expectations, real estate correction, and consumer ennui.
The mall is past its prime in some pockets of Ghaziabad, Faridabad and Gurugram. Their food courts are sterile without the heady mix of inter-mingling aromas of different cuisines, and play areas for kids are silent. The chatter between friends, the bustle of shoppers strutting up and down escalators, the first-day-first-show at the multiplex inside malls, and the loud music are all missing. They have now been reduced to just a handful of impoverished stores with mall security personnel accounting for most of the footfall.
Twenty one per cent of the 271 functioning malls in India are abandoned and dilapidated ghost malls, says Knight Frank’s latest report ‘Think India, Think Retail 2022’. And Delhi-NCR, which houses 34 per cent of India’s total malls, has the highest area of ghost malls – around 3.35 million sq feet. The report defines any mall with a vacancy of more than 40 per cent as a ‘ghost mall’.
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Failing ownership patterns
From Gurugram’s Raheja Mall to Ghaziabad’s Angel Mall and Greater Noida’s Venice Mall, it is a story of a growing graveyard of malls. Shoppers are moving online, movie halls are yielding to OTT, general malaise has gripped the economy, and inflation is having a direct impact on consumer spending.
Of the many factors that have led to the downfall of these malls, faulty ownership patterns occupy a primary reason. It was shady money chasing the next Gold Rush of the mall. Being a mall owner was as much a calling card as a mall shopper.
But many of the shiny new malls with their bright lights and gilded shop fronts were only a veneer hiding a darker underbelly. And enforcement agencies were quick to uncover fraud and murky dealings.
That’s what happened to SRS Mall in Faridabad. When it opened in 2004, it was all the rage. It had everything going for it — prime location, popular brands, and a PVR theatre. Today, the mall is sealed and abandoned as agencies, from the National Company Law Tribunal to the Enforcement Directorate, are investigating the owners for alleged fraud.
The mall, which was one of the SRS Group’s many ambitious ventures in the early 2000s, was closed in 2018 after Faridabad police arrested Anil Jindal, chairman and managing director of the SRS Group, and four other associates for allegedly defrauding his investors out of crores of rupees.
Jyoti Ranjan is one of the few store owners who continues to operate out of the mall. His tattoo studio, located on the mall’s exterior, is the only visible sign of activity in the area. “When it first opened in 2004, there used to be many retail brands here as it was the only major mall in the area. It would get very crowded,” said Ranjan, who bought the studio in 2017. As the only tattoo parlour in the vicinity, he still has a steady stream of clients. His phone rings regularly with inquiries from potential customers.
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When Venice sank
And then there is the Grand Venice Mall in Greater Noida, a testimony to how money and grandeur alone cannot sustain a mall. It toppled despite its ‘à la mode’ appeal when it opened in 2015.
It features Roman statues, domes, Venetian-styled architecture, and louvred windows. There are two canals running under its arches, with gondola rides on offer so that visitors can get a Venice-like experience in Uttar Pradesh.
A location close to the Pari Chowk metro station and numerous domestic and international retail brands such as Chaayos, H&M, Lifestyle, as well as an entertainment area filled with a snow zone, zip line, trampoline park, and more, made it a popular destination for people of all ages. It was a place for birthday parties, furtive teen dates, and aspirational social media selfies.
Its snazzy decor is the backdrop of numerous music videos such as Palazzo by Punjabi singers Kulwinder Billa & Shivjot in 2017.
However, the mall and its reputation began to deteriorate after the Economic Offences Wing (EOW) of the Delhi police arrested the mall’s owner Satinder Singh Bhasin in 2020 for his alleged role in the Rs 4,000-crore Bike Bot scam. Bhasin claimed he was falsely implicated, but the mall could not recover from its damaged reputation.
But it remained the choice of the ‘selfie-crowd’ it attracted from the nearby semi-rural areas. Lured by the mall’s Rome-like interiors with high domes, tall pillars and arches, visitors would stroll through the narrow lanes, take boat rides along the canals, and leave without making any purchases. While things appeared rosy on the surface, stores began to struggle, barely meeting sales targets. Unsold stocks started piling up even as footfalls continued – an untenable anomaly.
But the ‘selfie-crowd’ which flocked to the mall to take photos with its interiors, also caused trouble. It was not uncommon for service to be marred by conflict.
“When we refuse to give in to their outrageous demands, such as wanting to exchange products purchased more than six months ago, I frequently receive threats and abusive remarks from customers. In such situations, it becomes really difficult to do our job,” said Sonu Kashyap, who has been store manager at the Skechers outlet for over four years.
The mall’s urban sprawl had reached the hinterland. And soon lost its snob status. The new money middle class looked down upon the aspirational villagers crowding into their family-friendly social space.
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Some malls are the victims of shoddy design. Apart from ennui, dimly lit liminal passageways leading nowhere and lack of ‘customer walk flow’ management played their part as well in the decay of some malls.
“The builder never paid any attention to developing the mall and invested all the money elsewhere,” said a property consultant based on the first floor of Gurugram’s Raheja Mall.
It’s a common trope, one that mall owners and consultants fall back on when trying to find an answer to why a mall failed.
In his empty office on the first floor, the consultant sipped on his evening cup of tea — a comforting ritual in the near silent building. He fields a few calls from managers of boutiques on the ground floor. They are all shutting down, and many stores have been sealed.
When a mall dies, proprietors and owners brace themselves for losses that can run into crores, while employees and contract workers wake up every day with dread.
“I’ve barely been able to meet my sales targets since the past year after the Covid-19 pandemic. A lot of my work incentives and bonuses depend on the sales I’ve made, which I have not received for over a couple years now,” said Krishna Dixit, who’s been working as the store manager of BIBA at The Grand Venice Mall for over four years.
Not all store owners can afford to cut their losses and down shutters. According to Sahil, another property developer at Raheja Mall, the situation is so grim that shop owners are not even able to sell their space to others.
“They just drop their things and leave,” he says.
The owner of two businesses in Raheja Mall — Signature spa and Geetanshu salon — has no option but to ride this out in the hope that the mall will be resuscitated one day. “I feel stuck here because I have invested so much money into both my businesses. I feel that the mall owners are not committed to retaining shops. Even the children’s play area on the ground floor, which could have been an attraction for families, is not functional anymore,” he said.
Across ghost malls, everyone had a similar story of despair and frustration, mixed with recollections of the mall’s ‘glory days’.
Nikhil, the owner of a salon at TDI Mall in Rajouri, which never recovered from the pandemic, describes his business as a “formality”. He keeps it going for the sake of his employees. “But, because this is no longer my primary source of income, I do other work on the side,” he told ThePrint.
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From family spaces to security hazards
Khushi Gupta feels unsafe in her workplace, especially if she is on the night shift. The dark corridors and absence of people at Star City Mall in Mayur Vihar make the experience unsettling.
“There are only a few spas operational in this mall and a Cafe Coffee Day on the ground floor. As a woman, this place gets really unsafe at night for me. It’s uncomfortable to walk around here post 9pm,” said Gupta who works at Star City’s Reloaded Cafe.
Right next to Star City mall is DLF Galleria, which is also virtually empty.
A long time ago, these malls stopped being actual shopping centres, and transformed into spaces with mostly wine and beer shops, and some offices on the top floors. But now, those have also vanished, leaving the malls looking extremely empty with one or two people walking around. Spas abound, though.
According to Gupta, the spas are illegal fronts that “attract a very negative crowd.” The spas and bars are a bit inconvenient for family restaurants.
“While we have many visitors in our store, the mall doesn’t get much crowds. The bars have created a bad atmosphere, which is why people don’t come here anymore,” said Pramod Kumar, a cashier at Haldirams. The convenient position of Haldiram’s at the front of the mall, with multiple entrances, including one facing the road, allows people to avoid entering the shady looking mall.
The second floor of Raheja mall is lined with over 10 spas displaying boards of Welcome Spa, Thai Spa, Rhythm Body Spa, and so on. The food court is shut, but spas are flourishing, appears to be the sentiment among observers.
A police officer at Sector 50 Gurugram station declined to comment about the mushrooming spas on the top floors of the ghost malls. He smirked a couple times and made a gesture of zipping his lips.
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Hit by Covid and exorbitant maintenance fees
The pandemic changed the way people shopped and consumed entertainment. When the economy bounced back, many behemoth malls were unable to adapt to changing consumer trends.
There was a time before Covid, when Priya Sharma would regularly visit Raheja Mall. “It used to be quite lovely and we used to watch a lot of movies here too. I’m not sure what happened, but the shops closed and people stopped coming in. It went ghostly, even the lights used to stay off,” said Sharma, a Youtuber. She used to visit SRS Mall in Faridabad as well.
“But now, I prefer online shopping. There are better deals online and it is so much more hassle free,” she added.
At TDI Paragon Mall in Rajouri Garden, only two retail stores are open – a Shahnaz Hussain boutique tucked away in a corner, and a dimly lit men’s wear store with a signboard, ‘Sherwani on rent’. “People only come here to watch films,” said a security guard at TDI Paragon mall.
On the second floor are the spas.
“Since the lockdown, most shops have shut with only 2-3 being operational now. Our store’s sales have decreased dramatically as well. Our earlier sale per month used to be Rs 1.5 lakh and now it is only Rs 50,000,” said Rajender Singh, who has been running the Shahnaz Hussain store for five years now.
Just a short walk away, is the other TDI mall, even more eerie than Paragon. Here, broken mannequins with missing limbs guard abandoned and sealed stores. A lone Burger King at the entrance, that is still operational, is empty.
“The mall has extremely high maintenance, which is additionally the reason many stores have left. And even after these rates, there isn’t even any cooling in this mall. It’s as if the AC is not functioning at all,” said the owner of TDI’s Welcome Spa, which is empty of customers.
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The irony is that Delhi-NCR has high financial growth and private consumption compared to most other urban pockets in India.
“Any mall that was underperforming was due to poor design, which made shops difficult to access, rather than a lack of customers. Such malls were
designed looking at short-term goals,” said Arvind Singhal, chairman and founder of Technopak.
Now, many real estate developers, conglomerate companies, and others, are attempting to acquire and revamp these abandoned malls. The investments may not be hefty, but some efforts are underway.
“With the markets bouncing back and the demand increasing, even mid-tier malls, which had high vacancy during Covid periods, are seeing the return of consumers, and the demand from the retailers is coming back. Many of these malls are being repurposed and used for alternate usage these days. Some of the uses are office spaces, co-working, healthcare, education, and in-city warehousing,” said Anshuman Magazine, chairman & CEO, India, South-East Asia, Middle East & Africa, CBRE.
However, not all is lost for these malls, as some are in the process of being acquired and brought back to life. Promoters are determined to reclaim Grand Venice Mall’s former glory.
“We are changing the entire look and feel of the mall to make it more bright and welcoming for our customers. One of the major challenges the mall was facing earlier was visibility and accessibility due to its design, especially from a retail point of view. We are moving to make it more open, contemporary and make it one of the premier malls in Greater Noida,” said Preeti Sharma, head of leasing and marketing at the DS Group, a global conglomerate with a diverse presence in numerous industries from food to luxury retail.
New stores are set to open. There are also talks of changing the name of the mall to leave behind its tainted legacy.
The bright new entrance of Grand Venice Mall opens into a lobby area filled with banners of upcoming new brands as a sign of a mall renewal. With so much buzz around the growth of Greater Noida after CM Yogi Adityanath opened the Jewar airport, maybe the malls will get a new lease of life.
(Edited by Tarannum Khan)