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“Most of Our Projects are Now Mixed-Use Developments”

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(BAI) is ranked among South Africa’s leading retail architecture firms, with more than 50 years of experience in designing shopping centres. In 2004, the recognised the need for specialised architectural services in the retail real estate and mixed-use developments in India. To capitalise on this opportunity, partnered with Bentel Associates International (BAI) to represent them in the country.

Bentel India is currently one of India’s leading retail architectural firms involved in designing projects covering over 40 million sq.ft., which includes retail projects, offices, hotels and mixed-use developments. Stephen Roberts, Chairman, BAI, believes that shopping centres are an integral part of modern living, as much as schools, offices or hospitals and it should be an important part of India’s infrastructure development plan.

How has your journey been in India so far?

The journey so far has been very good for us in India, with our locally based joint venture partner ICS. It was through them that we ventured into the Indian market on the strength of our experience in retail architecture. ICS was already involved in parking garage design and management, and sought advice from a similar operation in South Africa as to which architects could be recommended for retail. That’s how the whole story started.

What kind of services you provide as an architect firm?

We provide full service, from master planning through architectural design, interior design, graphic design and store planning. We are able to offer clients a one-stop architectural service, from inception to completion, which together with our local establishment give us a competitive edge over other international architects. We recognised the importance of an Indian-based operation to give clients the satisfaction of dealing with us face to face. Our two separate offices in India and South Africa work closely together on all schemes to create a seamless operation. In addition to our retail expertise, we have secured projects in other sectors such as hospitality, commercial and residential. Most of our projects are now mixed-use developments.

Why mixed-use development?

The concept of mixed-use development with retail, entertainment, shopping and residential all under one roof helps diversify the tenant mix in the total construction and also de-risks the developer’s investment. It also allows the developers to utilise the FSI efficiency. Such developments leverage on the location and provide multiple solutions under one umbrella.

What points should be kept in mind while designing a mall in India?

Malls should have sufficient parking because a shopping centre is meant to be convenient. They should have easy access, good parking and good visibility. Planning your deliveries for your national tenants is very important. In India, we have a situation where most of the parking is underground. That was a challenge for us because we were used to big sites where all parking was on surface.

In a retail development, there are a number of stakeholders including investors, developers, tenants, customers etc. who want satisfaction, and best merchandise mix, and it is up to everybody to work together to correct the formula. But most of the times, developers and tenants fight for location and rentals.

What challenges you faced while designing Indian malls?

There have obviously been hurdles while working in India and we have learned to work in that environment. I have found the issues are more or less the same when starting out in both countries – South Africa and India. The history of retail in India is similar to the retail history of the world as same challenges and difficulties are to be faced.

There are concerns, especially from high-street tenants and shoppers. But I think history proves that there is a benefit for everybody. High-street shopping is still, and will always be, providing convenient shopping. So far we have concentrated on tier I cities and now we need to go beyond that. There are still going to be a lot of cultural and financial challenges that need to resolved, but we have the advantage of having established a local office in Mumbai. A combination of our expertise and that of the local architect enables us to find the right solution. We depend very much on local knowledge of the regulations and this partnership is the source of our victory.

How many projects you have executed in India till now? And what are your future plans?

So far, we have built a good brand with around 10 completed projects and another dozen confirmed, with a lot of inquiries. We have projects in various stages of design and/or construction in Bangalore, Chennai, Jaipur, Raipur, Patna, Ranchi and of course Mumbai.

We can see a lot more activity happening in the tier II and III cities such as Patna, Ranchi, and Vijaywada. In addition, there is still room for growth in the major metropolitan areas like Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi. Although we entered India on the strength of our retail expertise, we actually have a portfolio in other sectors and I think the trend is going to be the mixed-use developments with a retail portion, hospitality or commercial portion and even residential. In Coimbatore, we are currently engaged on a project that comprises both a large shopping mall and a major high rise residential portion. We are hoping to branch out to other sectors as well.

What’s your take on opening FDI in multi-brand retail?

I believe FDI will be a positive thing for Indian retail industry. While I sympathise with the counter-arguments, I’m not sure that opponents understand the full story. In fact there was an interesting presentation given at the , revealing that FDI in other countries usually contributes not more than 12 percent of the retail market. In all other countries where FDI has been in operation for a long time, the international companies generate business with local farmers and suppliers all down the line and improve methods of manufacture and product development. The other thing, in terms of retail, is that it will increase the number of major tenants who can anchor retail developments.