The thing about Kazakhstan is how little the average Brit knows about it. This is the ninth biggest country in the world, has a population of just 16.5 million and Almaty, its commercial capital, is a financial hub for central Asia.
Size 559,723 sq ft
Number of tenants 160
Developer Capital Partners
Yet for most, it remains well along the road less travelled. Two weeks ago, however, it took a step towards being rather better known, as Turkish/Kazakhstani developer Capital Partners opened the three-level Esentai Mall. The first impression visitors are likely to form is that they’ve seen it all before.
And to an extent this would be correct. The mall is steeped with familiar names, ranging from Gucci and Louis Vuitton, to a three-level, 96,875 sq ft outpost of Saks Fifth Avenue.
At the launch party, Almaty’s beau monde swarmed and the notion that Kazakhstan is a developing nation seemed to evaporate as shiny people vied to out-glam each other. As a snapshot of the direction of travel for the luxury sector, the Esentai Mall looks pretty much state of the art.
01 - VISUAL MERCHANDISING
No matter which you enter, the stores at Esentai are a paean of praise to the art of the visual merchandiser. Practically, this means Louis Vuitton has picked up the nostalgia theme that has hallmarked its international campaign of late with a window showing sepia-tinted 1920s-styled models crowded into what might be a carriage of the Orient Express. The glamour theme continues in Saks, where little compromise has been made as far as glitzy mannequin groupings are concerned, although curiously, in spite of the size of the shop, the scale is relatively domestic. The VM in this mall stands up to anything the shopper is likely to encounter in the better-end shopping malls of the Far East or North America.
02 - CONCEPT
The concept underpinning the whole scheme is straightforward – build a luxury environment and the shoppers will come. This used to be the justification used in Europe and North America for another new mall, but of late many of those that have opened are not fully occupied. Not so in Esentai, where the bling and almost overbearingly luxurious interior, designed by US architects SOM, act as a magnet in a place where luxury has been available but not on this scale.
03 - SERVICE
The idea of service is frequently seen as some kind of add-on in Western malls and shops, but it is almost integral to schemes in central Asia and the Far East. Anyone visiting Esentai would take service for granted therefore and the mall and its retailers don’t disappoint. This may be standard stuff within the region, but this doesn’t make it any the worse for being so and all of the staff in the mall’s public areas and in the shops were doing everything to make visitors feel special. The security men, as everywhere else, glowered.
04 - PRODUCT
There are times when it can be difficult not to stifle a yawn when faced with another tranche of luxury – it’s a bit same old, same old. There are, in fact, a number of mid-market offers from Western retailers in the Esentai Mall (such as Mango), but the dominance of luxury is hard to ignore. Wander into the Saks anchor therefore and while the offer may have been bought by local buyers, rather than US-based, there is a sense you’ve seen most of it somewhere else before. The same, mostly, goes for much of the other stores.
05 - COMPETITION
The night before opening, Twitter gave more than a hint of how the completion of the Esentai Mall is an event that has been eagerly awaited. This may be the region’s financial centre and there are certainly luxury offers strewn haphazardly across Almaty, yet the clustering of upscale brands under one roof is new and likely to give the existing incumbents a few headaches. It’s taken more than five years to complete, and it seems likely that as this is a growth city, another mall for mid and upscale labels may not be far behind. Right now, however, this is the destination for Almaty’s (very) well-heeled.
06 - VERDICT - All set
Economic confidence seems endemic in this part of the world. So much so that the Esentai Mall expects between 10 million and 12 million visitors in its first year, in a city of 1.2 million people. Considering the country’s modest population, this is possible, but inherently unlikely. This therefore is a scheme in which a lot of money and a great deal of confidence has been invested. And as in so many other parts of the developing world, it is aspiration that powers the desire for better things and the Esentai Mall looks well placed to satisfy that craving.