Development over the years has spurred Thane's growth, and the shopping malls along Ghodbunder Road are second to none when it comes to retail therapy
Mumbai: It’s a public holiday and people queue up for security check at the entrance of Viviana Mall in Thane. Guards throw bags onto the scanning machine with practised indifference. School holidays have started, but like a lot of modern urban India, retail therapy is sometimes the only entertainment and there’s plenty of it in Thane.
The shopping malls are symbols of Thane’s growth as a township over the years—emerging from the shadows of big brother Mumbai
It’s past “Happy Hours" 4 o’clock on a Monday afternoon but a bunch of pubs on the ground floor of the mall are empty—because it’s just a few metres from the highway. Inside the mall, the alleyways are packed, loudspeakers bellow with the sounds of some contest and there is a continuous stream of people.
This is just one mall in the bustling neighbourhood.
On the Eastern Express Highway that connects Mumbai to Nashik and beyond, driving northwards, a slew of malls dot the road. Starting with Korum Mall, then Viviana, High Street Mall, Lakecity Mall, Wonder Mall and R Mall—this roughly 5km stretch is packed with splurging options. Further south of Korum is Cinemax-Eternity mall and north of R Mall leads up to Ghodbunder Road, Thane’s hottest development zone.
The neighbourhood also has a stand-alone D-Mart store and showrooms of Woodland, Vijay Sales, Reliance Digital, Kohinoor, LG and Samsung for more focused shopping. Big Bazaar hyper market store upgraded to Big Bazaar Gen Nxt, a testimony to the evolving lifestyle of people in this area.
The rest are symbols of Thane’s growth as a township over the years—emerging from the shadows of big brother Mumbai.
All this development has come up in the last 15 years, changing the texture of this neighbourhood completely. Typically, habitations along a highway tend to see it both as an advantage and not—you get road access but no peace and quiet. Retail has added a third dimension, making the area more livable and possibly more exciting.
This is not just the low-key mom-and-pop retail though—this is the big box, thousands of square feet of built-up space filled with shops, cinemas, entertainment and the inevitable traffic jams.
This is no Dubai, although the similarities go beyond just the giant stores—there was a dust storm in the afternoon on the day of our visit, with dust flying from the piles of cement and debris lying at various corners of the crowded neighbourhood. Thane is a city that is being furiously constructed and reconstructed, making it a retail and residential paradise.
Unlike Dubai, not all of the rapid retail development is successful. For instance, out of seven malls in Thane, only two are Grade A and the rest are Grade B.
Across India, there are about 230-250 malls of which only 20% are Grade A, according to Ashutosh Limaye, head of research at Jones Lang LaSalle Property Consultants (India) Pvt. Ltd (JLL India). Among the criteria that make for Grade A are size and management.
Grade A malls have better occupancy rates and returns on investment and are deemed to be successful in contrast to Grade B malls, which could be struggling without quality retailers and footfalls.
The older parts of Thane still retain their small town characteristics—cramped roads, smaller buildings, and many parks and lakes, reasons why residents love this city so much—causing some sort of a divide between the old and the new.
Thane has a place in national history, predominantly due to the first railway line in the country that was laid in the 19th century, connecting it close to the southern tip of Mumbai, Bori Bunder (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus).
In more recent times, Thane became a residential hub for people moving out of the increasingly unaffordable city—like other suburbs of Mumbai.
According to the 2011 Census, Thane had a population of 1.8 million and estimates say it has increased by nearly 50% in five years, making it one of the fastest growing towns in the country. With over 14,000 people per square kilometre, this is a dense human habitation.
Data from the two rounds of India Human Development Survey suggests that average household income in Thane rose by 137% between 2004-05 and 2011-12 for the more than 200 households that were interviewed. This is largely in line with the 133% jump in annual income reported by more than 300 Mumbai households over the same period.
It features in the list of top 20 promising cities (with a population of over a million and excluding the metros) put together by First Smart Cities Council along with research firm Indicus Analytics.
Consequently, there are close to 50-60 projects under construction in Thane and most are on the Ghodbunder stretch of 9-10km, according to Hemant Gala, director at Larkins Group, property developers in Thane for nearly 40 years. The group has built about 5,000 units so far and has 2,500 units spread across 30 acres under construction.
By 2019, another builder, the Hiranandani Group will have a 6,000-unit township catering to a population of 35,000 people and providing employment for as many as 60,000. Tata Consultancy Services Ltd has a 700,000 sq. ft campus with employment for 22,000 people coming up in Ghodbunder, a complete township with commercial, residential, retail and entertainment facilities. The corporate headquarters of Bayer will be in the township.
“We started selling at Rs1,000 per sq. ft; now we are selling at Rs10,000 per sq. ft," says Niranjan Hiranandani, co-founder and managing director of Hiranandani Group, one of the more significant builders in the area.
The Ghodbunder stretch hosts a couple of four-star hotels and the Goenka International School at Kapurbawdi. The rates for the residential projects in the area vary between Rs6,000 to Rs11,000 per sq. ft, adds Gala.
Long-time residents proudly say that in Thane, every junction has flyovers, there are no signals and it is extremely well planned. The retail, multiplexes, commercial and residential are all well laid out.
Moreover, most infrastructure—schools (the Smt. Sulochanadevi Singhania School is considered the best in the region by locals), colleges and hospitals—is new. There are walking streets with shops.
The quality of life is beautiful, adds Hiranandani.
What was Ghodbunder Road 15 years ago? It was a two-lane road; today it’s a 14-lane road with seven lanes on each side. Also there is a Metro coming up from Chembur to Kasarwadavali- Niranjan Hiranandani, co-founder and MD, Hiranandani Group
In fact, some predict that with the developing infrastructure and transportation, people’s movement in the future would be from Mumbai to Thane—to shop, of course. Way back in 2005 this used to be the case when Thane, before Mumbai, got the first mall with a multiplex, entertainment, food courts and shopping under one roof—Wonder Mall.
“What was Ghodbunder Road 15 years ago? It was a two-lane road; today it’s a 14-lane road with seven lanes on each side. Also there is a Metro coming up from Chembur to Kasarwadavali," says Hiranandani.
“What works for Thane—this is true for new catchment developments like Malad and Noida—is that they have space for building large malls," says Shubhranshu Pani, managing director (infrastructure services) at JLL India.
Old versus new
Siddhesh Malgaonkar, a senior business analyst with BNP Paribas India, has lived in Thane all his life, some 30-plus years. He has an enviable residential address—just a short walk from Viviana.
He recollects a childhood in the small suburb of typically middle-class Maharashtrian families living in a place that few wanted to visit. Things started to change with a new (Thane Municipal Corporation) commissioner T. Chandrashekhar in the late 1990s. During his tenure, a number of illegal structures were demolished and Thane was beautified, roads widened and flyovers built.
What works for Thane—this is true for new catchment developments like Malad and Noida—is that they have space for building large malls- Shubhranshu Pani, MD (infrastructure services) at JLL India
“Culturally, Thane is closer to Pune with its theatre, prominent industry people who have been living there for some time… It’s always been peaceful, with negligible crime rates. This was the old Thane, mainly around the station and Gokhale Road, with a rich cultural charisma," says Malgaonkar.
The “new" Thane—which includes Ghodbunder—is a different beast altogether. The town’s green cover—this was essentially a forest area—has been replaced with concrete, a contrast to “old" Thane with lakes, jogging tracks, gardens, etc.
“Ghodbunder is a completely new development," says Pani. “The road initially had utility stores that helped building homes, like furniture, plumbing, home improvement, and then consumer durables came up followed by the big box retail malls, which are a more recent phenomenon."
Viviana, which is just off Ghodbunder, is four years old and Korum started operations earlier in 2009. The two malls are within a kilometre of each other though the latter pales compared to the former.
Wonder Mall, built by Kanakia Spaces Realty Pvt. Ltd, was the first of its kind in all of Mumbai Metropolitan Region and Thane Municipal Corporation. “People from Mumbai used to come to this," reminisces Himanshu Kanakia, managing director of Kanakia Group, which used to operate the Cinemax theatre chain. In 2012, PVR Ltd acquired it.
The same year (2005) saw the launch of High Street Mall by Larkins Group and a year later, R Mall by Runwal Group. “It was boom time for construction and the ‘mall culture’ was also just taking off," explains Gala of Larkins Group.
Most of these earlier generation malls, like Wonder, Eternity and High Street, were built to sell and differ from places like Viviana, which only leases space to retailers. “The shopping area, we sold it. We never thought of keeping it. That is why it is not successful," says Kanakia, who operates a mall in Nagpur that is 100% owned by the company and “is successful".
He adds that a successful mall requires a good mix of brands, competent management which takes care of aesthetics and cleanliness, creating and celebrating events to drive footfalls. Sharing revenue works better than fixed rentals. “All of this is missing at our Thane malls," says Kanakia.
In contrast, at Viviana, on long weekends or big days, when they run events and line up promotions and sales, as many as 50,000 people visit in a single day, according to its chief operating officer Sunil Shroff. On an average, a million people visit per month, according to data provided by the mall. Viviana has already changed many resident brands in the past three years to remain relevant.
To be sure, Viviana is the biggest mall in Thane. Set over one million sq. ft, with ground plus two levels, its parking lot goes down two levels, each bursting with vehicles and people on a holiday.
Viviana is Grade A, according to JLL India research; its vacancy is at about 5-10% which can be seen as the natural rate. Grade B malls have a vacancy of anywhere between 10-30%. Vacancy as a measure can be used to gauge the success of a mall.
What works for Viviana is that it gets a healthy percentage of shoppers from as far as Kalyan, and Ulhasnagar, Bhiwandi, Powai, and neighbouring Mulund, Ghatkopar and Airoli suburbs. The mall has one of the largest multiplexes in the neighbourhood with 14 screens and an entertainment zone for children—Fun City spread across 28,000 sq. ft.
The retail conundrum
“Earlier, this used to be a jungle," says Deepika Nair, 29, while enjoying a snack with a jolly bunch of girlfriends at SodaBottleOpenerWalla in Viviana. “People living here don’t need to go to Mumbai any more. The last time I visited Linking Road (a popular street-side shopping destination in Bandra) was 15 years ago. Now everything is available in Thane."
Even if the “mall-culture" is a relatively recent phenomenon in this part of the township, there has already been a churn. Wonder and Eternity, which were built on the sale model, are now largely just operating multiplexes. Viviana, Phoenix Market City (in Kurla) and Inorbit (Malad)—the latter two in Mumbai—run on a lease model, which gives owners flexibility in planning retail experience.
MG Road in Gurgaon is the best example of this. It was India’s first mall street: places like MGF Metropolitan, DLF Grand, DLF City Centre, DLF Mega and JMD Regent Arcade all came up within close proximity of each other, though some of them now are not purely retail.
In Pune, the Inorbit mall converted into a commercial complex in 2016 as there were close to seven malls launched in the city, all of them in a 6-7km radius. The stretch of Nagar Road in Pune, for instance, had three malls close to each other in 2011.
Unlike Orchard Road in Singapore or even the shopping avenues in the Philippines and Bangkok, which have large, successful malls in close proximity, India lacks infrastructure. Also, there is no secondary or tertiary market, like a large floating population of tourists, shopping in Thane. “So each micro-market has a limited business potential," says Rajneesh Mahajan, chief executive director of Inorbit Malls (India) Pvt. Ltd.
Earlier, this used to be a jungle... People living here don’t need to go to Mumbai any more. The last time I visited Linking Road (in Bandra) was 15 years ago. Now everything is available in Thane- Deepika Nair, a customer at Viviana Mall
Meanwhile, Viviana has managed to consolidate retail of all big brands like Zara, Shoppers Stop, Lifestyle, Forever 21, Nalli’s and food and beverage outlets like Bhagat Tarachand, Mainland China, besides SodaBottleOpenerWala. Now other malls in the neighbourhood are facing a loss of business and will have to look at different ways to step up to the competition, adds Pani of JLL India.
On the other hand, with the proposed development in the coming years, and distances seeming insurmountable despite increased public transportation, Thane residents may just accept what they have, with relief and pleasure.
“When I was a child, the shopping hub was Dadar (in central Mumbai). Of course, the way of shopping has also changed. For small traditional stuff, we go to Gokhale Road. If you want branded stuff, we have the malls," says Malgaonkar of BNP Paribas India, who considers Ghodbunder a “different suburb".
This is the last in a three-part series, which looks at neighbourhoods in and around Mumbai—Pali Naka, Bandra; Kala Ghoda, Fort; and Ghodbunder Road, Thane—that have transformed over time through retail and commerce, and how that has impacted their socio-economic fabric.