Connect to share and comment

Mall nation

Malls serve as cultural centers in a nation where many live on less than $2 a day.

MANILA — These days, there's no escaping the mall. It used to be that Filipinos like Sheila Largoza went to the park during their days off. A maid, Largoza is not affluent enough to be able to spend a few hundred pesos a week at the mall. But come the weekend, that is exactly where she finds herself.

On a recent Sunday, Largoza, 23, and a friend were killing time at the SM Mall of Asia, the largest mall in the Philippines, which is located by the Manila Bay. "The parks in Manila are no good," she said, looking below at the mall's promenade, with its magnificent view of the setting sun. Despite having spent a good two hours inside the vast shopping center, Largoza and her friend hadn't spent a single centavo on anything.

In many ways, the pull of malls in the Philippines goes beyond shopping, as Largoza, with her $90 a month salary, illustrates. These air-conditioned malls have become more than a substitute for public parks in this tropical country. They have come to define Filipino consumer culture and, to a large degree, the character of the modern-day, remittance-dependent Filipino family.

Eighty percent of Filipinos go to the malls at least once or twice a month, according to a 2008 survey by the Nielsen Media Research, even though nearly half of the population lives on $2 a day or less.

This data alone would seem to suggest a disconnect between consumer habits and economic reality, but consider this as well: Three of the world's largest shopping malls, according to computations by Forbes magazine, are in the Philippines, for which the International Monetary Fund has predicted a poor performance of zero percent gross domestic product growth for 2009. It is topped on the Forbes list by only one other country: China, with four malls on the list and 8 percent forecasted GDP growth.

Moreover, families of overseas Filipino workers, whose billions of dollars in annual remittances help prop up the economy and encourage consumer spending, are a regular fixture at the malls, which now have foreign-exchange or remittance centers with lines so long that converting currency can often take between 15 minutes to half an hour.

It is easy to see why Filipinos are mall-crazy. One can practically spend a whole day at the SM Mall of Asia, which is the largest in Asia and the third largest in the world — it has 4.2 million square feet of “gross leasable area,” or a floor area of 148 acres, larger than the Vatican.