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Will mega malls kill inner-city shops?

Shoppers still fill Swiss city streets and alleys swissinfo.ch

Plans are going ahead to build Switzerland’s first giant shopping centres on the outskirts of the country’s main cities and towns.

This content was published on April 26, 2005 - 13:31

How will these mega malls change consumer habits and what consequences will they have for town centres?

There is a large and colourful crowd in front of the Loeb department store. This is Bern’s main meeting place where people gather at all times of the day and night to decide where to shop, stroll, eat or see a film.

Bern’s old town is compact and has everything the heart desires. But it will face stiff competition in a few years time when Westside, an ultra-modern shopping and leisure centre, opens its doors.

Designed by star architect Daniel Libeskind, Westside will have 60 shops, multiplex cinemas, restaurants and bars, a water park and spa as well as its own hotel – and all that on Bern’s doorstep with direct motorway access.

"They want a piece of the pie but the pie isn’t getting any bigger," says the deputy-director of Loeb, Madeleine Elmer, summing up the challenge facing Bern’s retailers.

The convenience provided by the malls in North America killed off the traditional family-run shop and led to an exodus from the town centres.

Shadow of former selves

According to James Bacos, an American retail expert at the German branch of Mercer Management Consulting, it took two decades for the centres to recover but only as a shadow of their formers selves, reduced to specialty shops, boutiques and restaurants.

The Westside threat has been recognised in Bern’s inner city where efforts are underway to merge the several shop associations in order to concentrate resources, since some of the associations represent only a handful of retail outlets.

"We need to increase our marketing and so we require a larger budget, but a lot of smaller shops don’t want to foot the bill," says Andreas Hubacher, head of an alliance of retailers in the upper old town, which favours a merger.

Both Hubacher and Elmer agree that the attraction of Bern’s well-preserved medieval centre could be the town’s trump card. The same could be said of Zurich, Fribourg and Lucerne, which will also have to do battle with malls on a similar scale to Westside.

Exotic Switzerland

Sihlcity says it will be a "new neighbourhood in Zurich", while Gottéron Village near Fribourg will boast an Olympic-size swimming pool alongside its shops and restaurants.

EbiSquare outside Lucerne is being billed as a "leisure centre with an integrated shopping mall... landscaped around the theme 'Exotic Switzerland’".

But Robert Casagrande of the Casagrande souvenir shop in Lucerne, doubts the promises of "landscapes offering atmospheres which react to day and night [and] seasons, and show the atmospheric changes accordingly".

"The Swiss have everything so near, the mountains and lakes, so I don’t think they need an artificial world," he says.

Casagrande does think the new centre will force a "bigger specialisation in the old town – more little shops that you can’t find in a shopping mall".

Fashion designer Claudia Krebser, who operates a small boutique on the edge of Lucerne’s old town, does not see EbiSquare as a threat.

"The mall will definitely be popular with certain segments of society since you can drive there and load your purchases into your car," she says.

Personal touch

"But in spite of these advantages, I think there are a lot of people who still want personal service and attention. There is an atmosphere in Lucerne that you can’t recreate in a mall."

"We already have a lot of [small] shopping centres around Lucerne which means there are fewer customers coming into the city to buy," counters Walter Hochstrasser of Elektro Willimann, a shop selling and servicing telephones and small appliances.

"More shops will be forced to close but that seems to be what the politicians want," he adds.

His view is supported by retail studies conducted by Bacos of the consultancy, Mercer. He says while medieval cities are attractive, their shops cannot compete with the better range of goods and services, convenient parking and standards offered by malls.

Winning formula

"Price, range and quality" is the winning formula of shopping malls that he says is hard to beat.

Emanuel Wirth of the Gübelin jewellery and watch shop believes tourists will keep Lucerne’s old town alive but that the authorities are shooting themselves in the foot by agreeing to improve roads and public transport to ensure excellent access to EbiSquare.

"If traffic is redirected outside of the city to the shopping centres, then shopping will be done by car," he warns. "The Lucerne inner city, despite its excellent public transport network, will become a very quiet place."

"Our customers are disappearing in order to shop outside the city and the politicians don’t care," Hochstrasser concludes.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Bern and Lucerne

In brief

Westside (Bern)
80,000 sq m
Planned opening 2008.
Cost SFr500 million.

EbiSquare (Lucerne)
73,000 sq m
Planned opening 2007-2010.
Cost SFr500 million.

Gottéron Village (Fribourg)
220,000 sq m.
Planned opening 2007.
Cost SFr600 million.

Sihlcity (Zurich)
100,000 sq m.
Planned opening 2007.
Cost SFr620 million.

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