China-based outlets may not be as bulletproof as operators claim when a financial pinch hits, but they are still a sound investment, property consultants said.
"Sales at successful designer outlets will be higher than at regular malls in China," said Regina Yang, director and head of research and consultancy at Knight Frank Shanghai.
"But their performance will still be affected by a recession, and sales will slow down."
The difference is more pronounced in China because malls rarely operate as efficiently as their counterparts in the West.
Raedmund Jennings, a British expatriate who works for an asset management company in Shanghai, said: "In China, the retailers essentially control the market. As a result, you have no consideration of who to put in a shopping center based on what the customer wants or market research, which is why a lot of the retail market here is failing."
China cannot identify who the consumer is. It has no mosaic or credit card profiling like in the West, he said. "Only one shopping center that I know of, in Guangzhou, is making comparable returns to even a decently sized mall in Australia." Annual sales per square meter at an Australian mall typically range from A$10,000-15,000($8,333-12,500), compared to just $3,000-5,000 in China.
Moreover, some Chinese mega malls trip up on what can only be described as Titanic proportions. Take the case of the New South China Mall in Dongguan, which was billed as a "dead mall" last year after opening in 2005 with 5 million square feet of shopping area.
Even its built-in roller-coaster, replica Arc de Triomphe and giant sphinx failed to pull in tenants and shoppers, just one example of how rampant investment in Chinese construction projects has proven toxic due to a lack of proper planning.
But outlets, especially foreign-run ones, are more prone to test the water before jumping in. Last year, retail sales at the leading Chinese outlets in Shanghai fell midway between those of five of the top malls in the city.
Sales at Bailian Qingpu, the leading local outlet operator, stood at 2.843 billion yuan ($460 million), compared with 1.51 billion yuan for the Xuhui branch of Oriental Department Store and 4.75 billion yuan for Nextage Mall, according to Shanghai Commercial Information Center and Balian Group.
However, annual sales at the Bailian outlet seem to confirm Yang's comments, rising 40 percent before contracting amid the recent slowdown. They jumped from 2.1 billion yuan in 2011 to 2.843 billion yuan in 2013, but declined to a projected 2.616 billion yuan this year, statistics provided by the group show.
Posted on 19-Dec-2014
Matt Hodges in Shanghai