Shopping is a weekend institution, rivalling sport as our favourite hobby. But as malls sprawl in Auckland's outer suburbs, how do you know which one to go to? Steve Braunias surfed 13 malls in three days and lived to tell the tale. And now he presents his official power rankings.
Malls are an Auckland way of life. We have the best malls and the biggest malls and the most malls in New Zealand. We have north and south and east and west – when are we going to have a floating mall? Imagine that, a mall on a barge in the sparkling Waitematā; no one would pay Rangitoto Island a second glance.
Digging up the earth to lay down train tracks only seems to be the central preoccupation of Auckland life in 2019. In fact, it's a golden, glowing year dedicated to the expansion of malls. Stage one of the new $250 million Newmarket mall opened last month. Stage two of the new $78m Botany mall opened on Thursday at 9am – I was there, I can claim my part in modern history. Even the modest Eastridge mall in Mission Bay threw down some money to open its new Eatery complex of food joints this year.
Aucklanders love a mall. It tells us who we are and what we look like. We walk in and walk out with the same haircuts from either the Sharing Shed or Rodney Wayne, pop the same pills from either Life Pharmacy or Unichem, wear the same pants from Hallensteins or Tarocash, wear the same top from Mirrou or Glassons, order the same pastries from Hollywood Bakery or The Coffee Club. To enter a mall is to conform. It's good for us. It's a bonding experience.
Malls are caves, shelters, cones of silence – the outside world is full of noise and stink and that random stuff known as nature. Malls tame nature. It never rains. Kids love malls. Old people live in malls. Malls are community centres, safe havens – when the air raid sirens begin to wail, and the end is nigh, make haste and hurry to your closest mall. Everyone else will be there, including zombies.
The best examination or thesis on the meaning of shopping malls remains the 1978 zombie movie Dawn of the Dead. Most of the film takes place in a mall; some kind of virus turns people into flesh-eating zombies with vague, confused memories of what it was like to be human, and their natural instinct is to crowd into a mall where they ride escalators and roam across polished floors. We are all zombies. We all head to the mall and enter a state of mindlessness. We all ride and roam, numbed by clothes, appliances, devices, surfaces...
Auckland is zombie central. You go to Wellington, and what have you got? One mall at Queensgate in Lower Hutt, one at North City in Porirua, one up the line at Coastlands in Paraparaumu. Pathetic. By my estimation, Auckland has 17 malls although one or two go by the name of plaza. I went to 13 this week and took careful notes, spoke to the people: I set myself the task of rating the pride of Auckland, measuring such things as layout, public seating, natural light, the range of shops, rides for kids, optimum age, and because a mall is essentially a Zen experience with things in it, the vibe.
I have rated each out of 10. By all means @ me. Send in your own scores and remarks. Correspondence will be entered into; malls are an emotional subject, common ground, hubs where we satisfy our retail urges and put our sense of belonging and pride in where we live – malls are an icon of Auckland.
It's the mall on the prairie, a welcome blot on a landscape of exposed clay and vacant lots festooned with gorse. It's kind of depressing out that way and the name is a clue: it's not one thing or another, kind of west and kind of north, in-between the creepy new apartment settlement of Catalina Bay and poor old shabby Massey. There are a lot of pylons.
But the mall itself is okay. It's in the classic T-section, with Farmers at one end and Countdown at the other, and a standard range of shops (Barkers, Glassons, Cotton On, Hannahs) in-between. There's hardly anywhere to sit and a quite good Peppa Pig ride for little kids. Young families are everywhere; the optimum age to enjoy NorthWest is 3.
The food hall is by the front windows and filled with natural light. One place closed down not long ago and no one can remember what it sold. "Something like the fish and chips," thought a Chinese woman mopping the floor. "Wasn't it hangi?" asked Norman Watene, 50. He gave the mall 8/10. I said, "That's very high." He said, "It's really because it's the closest to where I live." Fair point but I think he was overly generous of this really fairly bland space with no upstairs or downstairs.
Henderson is my local mall, my happy stamping ground, and I have indeed spent some of the happiest times of my life there because it's where we went as a family for supermarket shopping, movies, a meal, magazines, toys, plates, shoes, all the surfaces. And so I'm biased, but I am speaking objectively when I remark that this is an awesome mall. It's got interesting levels and various sets of escalators to keep you alert, and the floor is laid out in diamond patterns – it's great fun for kids to jump from one to another. It's very clean and natural light pours in through a glass roof over the food hall. Old people sit here all day; the optimum age to enjoy it is 65.
The public seating is generous, and there's a bizarre gold-buying ATM machine that no one has ever used. But the range of shops is fairly routine (no Typo, no high-market clothing) and downstairs is a depressing grotto of four $2 shops. Henderson being Henderson, I saw a guy urinating in the carpark the other day. Generally, though, the vibe is upbeat and it has a community spirit.
Brought to you by Kiwi Property Group, the people who built Sylvia Park, so at least it's a departure from the Westfield model at Henderson, Albany, Manukau and St Lukes. But to what end? New Lynn's LynnMall doesn't really have much of an identity. Which is strange, because it's the oldest mall in New Zealand, setting up shop in 1963; and as recently as 2015, it got a $36m do-up, with a cinema and an outdoor dining lane. There's a good range of shops, including the Bed Bath & Beyond franchise, the Bras N Things franchise, and the Pandora franchise. The public seating is okay and there's a quite good Jolly Roger ride (a cute bear in red dungarees) for little kids.
And yet, and yet. Something is missing. What is it? I spoke with Lisa Smith, 62, who was frank about her retail urges: "I love shopping." But there was an illness to LynnMall. She gave it a lot of thought. "It's...it's...it's...", she said, and concentrated really hard. And then she said: "It's tired already. It's old before its time. It lacks an excitement. It...it...it..." I leaned forward. And then she came out with it, got to the awful truth: "It's got no soul." She gave it a damning 6/10. That's a bit harsh but I have to agree that there's a pervading sense of emptiness. The optimum age to enjoy it is 45.
St Lukes 9.3/10
Now we're talking. St Lukes has it sorted; St Lukes knows the score. It's got all sorts of levels and there's not a dud moment to be had. The optimum age to enjoy it is a frisky 27. I love the little Starbucks tucked into a corner by the entrance to the Event Cinemas; I love the escalator above the food hall, meaning you come down to a kind of stage set of people filling their faces; everything's always on the go, and when I was there to make my assessment the PA played Sway by Bic Runga. Lovely song! It matched the good, good vibes throughout this reliable, classic mall, with its cream puffs on sale at the strangely named Beard Papa's, its footwear fetish (Merchant Shoes, Adidas, Ziera, Converse, Mi Piaci), and its beautiful play of light and shade made by a central skylight.
I'm with Rebecca Shen, 40, who said, "It's not the biggest. But if I want to buy something, 90 per cent of what I want, I will find it here. In my heart, it is the best."
OMG. It really is amazing. The optimum age to enjoy it is 20. It's the future of malls, with big screens, dark lighting, groovy advertising, and powerpoints for your phone. It's got mocktail gelatos, it's got Huffer, it's got Seed, it's got Stolen Girlfriends Club. This isn't the sort of places that has a Sharing Shed or Rodney Wayne; it's got Barkers Groom Room and Hamilton Brooks Hairdressing. It's pretentious. It's expensive. It's elite, and the $250m is going to make it the mall to go to see and be seen.
But right now it's only got 40 stores, no food hall, and no supermarket, so it's all a bit pants, really. There's nothing to do. It's boring and humorless and the music is rubbish oonst. No one's around yet. I spoke to a guy selling a parking app and he said, "It's really quiet. Some shops will only have one customer in the morning." It's a work in progress. A score, however, cannot wait.
It's got a really good vibe, lots of natural light flooding into the hall, and the most striking piece of public art I saw in any mall – The Rainbow, a rather garish but certainly bright stained glass display by Shona McFarlane. It's young; the optimum age to enjoy it is 25. But the public seating is a bit mean, and the low ceiling gives it the feel of a bungalow or, worse, a bunker.
The shops are standard mall operations (JB Hi-Fi, Foot Locker, Jay Jays, Smiggle, Sunglass Hut) with the occasional oddity, such as Rivendell, which has a good line in spooky faerie stuff. The whole thing is just kind of average, nothing special, but lifted by its community spirit.
Sylvia Park 9/10
Woah. The biggest and still the most expensively revamped mall in the country at $258m, Sylvia Park is really the ultimate in malls. It's kind of got everything, really. It's got Kmart and L'Occitane, it's got minigolf and a big open-aired oval in the middle, it's got Peter Alexander and T&T Childrenswear, it's got the strangest new food franchise in New Zealand – the absurdly named Chicking, a fried chicken joint from Dubai. The optimum age to enjoy it is 22.
"It's probably the most complete mall in Auckland," said Adjani Wahya, 18. Even at his tender years, he is a veteran of malls, almost a scholar; he's from Jakarta, where malls are crucial to everyday life, a daily meeting place for all his friends. He doesn't miss the experience. He loves the outdoor life in New Zealand. If he has to come to a mall, Sylvia Park is his go-to place: "It's arguably the best. It's hectic. It's dense. It's got its charms."
Agreed, but the windows are filthy, the public seating is sparse and tatty, and the layout is really a total drag – one flat level, one long walk along an infinity of shopfronts. Kiwi Property Group! Set up an escalator, for God's sake.
The mall at Albany feels close to heaven, thanks to the steps leading up to it, and the courtyard out front – the place has the feel and even the holiness of a temple. I love it. Also, in the vacant lot outside, I went birdwatching, and saw a gorgeous New Zealand dotterel, with its orange body and quizzical eyebrow.
This is an awesome mall. It's huge, and it's got two levels, and the same feature which I love about St Lukes and WestCity: a sloping floor. It lends interest and perspective to the mall journey. A pox on the flat floors of Sylvia Park and LynnMall. The public seating is generous and comfortable, there's a quite good Alien Patrol ride for little kids, and the range of stores is impressive – it's got Swarovski, Mecca Maxima, Peter Alexander.
And every Wednesday it's got former truck driver Andrew Taylor, 85, and his wife, Elsie, from Glasgow, 84. Their routine is to shop at Pak'nSave in the morning, then come to the mall, and take a seat: "We like to watch life go by for half an hour," Elsie said. "It always has a happy atmosphere. You don't see any scrapping or fighting. An awful lot of people live alone; they could just come here and be entertained. It's a pleasure coming here." I agree with every word, although it makes me think the optimum age to enjoy the mall is 84.
The optimum age to enjoy it is 94. "A lot of seniors come here," said Ann Larkin, 78. "To be perfectly honest, the Shore is smothered in retirement villages."
The mall got a $50m expansion in 2017. Ann thought it had mixed results. "It's very nice. It's a tranquil mall." And that was true; it was a classy joint, and the whole placed smelled nice. "But," she said, "so many stores are closing down every week. There's one just there." She pointed to Veronika Maine, which is relocating. "The shops don't seem to last long. And there used to be a food hall. I liked the food hall. To be perfectly honest, I prefer the old mall to the new mall."
It was a devastating speech but I loved the way she pronounced mall as "mel", as in Pall Mall in London. She gave it 6/10. I thought that was a bit harsh. It's a peaceful little neighbourhood mall, with low ceilings and good natural light, generous public seating, and, best of all, at Neo Espresso, a pot of filter coffee.
Royal Oak 7.8/10
Hmm. A strange place. It's another peaceful little neighbourhood mall, in dreary Mt Roskill, with a wonderful entrance – clean glass, and two big tubs of flowers - and lovely natural light, a quite good Humphrey the bear ride for little kids, and a cheerful vibe. It has a picture framer, a florist, five joints in the food hall including Bunny ("Your food buddy").
But the first thing you see when you enter are three shops with CLOSING DOWN signs, and a fourth already vacant. Upstairs is empty and barren; downstairs is weird and barren. It gives the place a deserted and frankly depressing aspect.
I went to see Peter, the operations manager, in his office down a hallway. He said the mall was a body corporate model, with individual owners. But he didn't want to answer any more questions and started blinking. I asked for his surname. "It's Not Bothered," he said. I asked why he would say that, and he said, "Because I'm not bothered." But he was very bothered, and his mouth started twitching.
I liked it there, though. It had an individual design, sloping floors, good angles, and, even with the closing downs and sense of doom, a happy vibe.
One more peaceful little neighbourhood mall although not a mall at all, really. it's a semi-circle, with not that many shops, and no food hall, although it does have joints to eat at in The Eatery. It has a Sharing Shed and a Rodney Wayne, antibacterial wound gel at Health 2000, and lovely magnolias at the entrance, with views of the Waitematā. Because it was Mission Bay, the optimum age to enjoy it is 94.
Pakuranga Plaza 8/10
One final peaceful little neighbourhood mall, which I simply adored. It has a quite good Westpac helicopter ride for little kids, three pairs of socks for $5 at Sock World, a Porterhouse Grill, and, most dazzlingly of all, the best entertainment in any mall in New Zealand: a room set up for table tennis. Table tennis! In a mall! Two people were playing; I challenged the woman to a game and we set to it. She didn't speak a word of English. We spoke the language of fierce competition. "Eee-YAH!" she shrieked. "Yeah!" I hollered. God, she was good, full of wicked backspin, and had me so far away from the table that I was virtually in Wellington. But I held my nerve and played the angles. I won 21-18. I had such a good time. I am 59 and hereby state that the optimum age to enjoy the mall is 59.
Golly. It's actually incredible out there. AMP Capital run it as a kind of town centre built around the mall and it makes the whole thing have the indoor-outdoor, perfectly mindless feel of a Disney World. The carpark is flax-fringed. Stage three of the mall expansion will house the Botany Library. There were lemon daffodils, a bunch of three for $13. There was an office for the Botany Crime Patrol. There was a Lone Star, a Hoyts, a $26.50 carwash service and handmade chocolates at The Sweet Land. It was vibrant, groovy, flash; the optimum age to enjoy it is 17; there was just a bit too much outdoors and not enough indoors for my tastes, too much risk of rain and nature. Otherwise, it was freaking spectacular.