Saturday, December 09, 2006


For many years, I've had a sort of phobia about shopping malls. It came from growing up in San Diego and watching previously undeveloped coastal sage lands disappear into a morass of parking lots and franchises. Aside from hating what they did to once beautiful scenery, malls made me nervous. You could go to one and find the same things at another several states away - the same stores, the same products, the same muzak. Where was the creativity, the originality, the expression of culture? Is everything reducible to a commodity, and is that all we value? And even if so, what happened to all those quirky little businesses that were one of a kind? Was every form of commerce doomed to that which could be replicated on a mass scale?

So this kind of scares me:

With 30,000 stores crammed on four sprawling floors, International Trade City — about 200 miles south of Shanghai — is the largest wholesale mall in the world.

The S-shaped building, painted orange and pale yellow, is 18 million square feet. That's about the equivalent of 350 football fields and about six times the size of Costa Mesa's South Coast Plaza, one of the biggest shopping centers in the U.S.

You won't find any cinemas or food courts here, but Yiwu officials boast that the market sells 400,000 different items. Situated in bustling Zhejiang province, the giant 4-year-old mall illustrates the power of China Inc. today: enormous scale and specialization, driven by ambitious private entrepreneurs...

..."This place will make you crazy…. It's like rows and rows and rows of the same thing over and over again," said Glenn Thain, a New York insurance agent who moonlights as a distributor of exotic alcohol drinks in China. The 39-year-old was shopping here for key chains, lighters and other trinkets to give away as promotions to his salespeople and customers.

He was also doing a little Christmas shopping for his niece. He clutched a fistful of sheets of fake tattoos that he bought for pennies each from a merchant who also sells retail. "It's amazing," Thain said...

...Merchants say most vendors seemed to be doing all right, but nobody knows for sure. Turnover is low. Rents range from $6,000 a year for the typical 10-by-15-foot stall in faraway spots to $60,000 for larger spaces in better locations. The mall's S layout imitates the shape of a dragon. The stores are arranged by product categories in districts A to H, with some districts separated into a dozen streets.

Red lanterns and gold stars hang from the ceiling. There are free Internet cafes and smoking rooms. On weekends, the shopping center is a magnet for tourists and schoolchildren.

Zhejiang China Commodities City Group, the developer of the market, is planning to invest $600 million to nearly double the size of the mall and add tens of thousands of grocery items and other consumer goods to the center's "sea of commodities."

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