The Philippines has what I call a “mall culture”.
Anything you wanted to do in Manila, you found yourself at a mall. Eatting out, shopping, going to the movies, getting a haircut, going to the dentist, bowling, ice skating, laser tag. Whatever you want to do, you had to go to one of the hundreds of malls in the metro area.
The largest mall in all of Asia is in the Philippines. SM North EDSA has a retail floor area of about 498,000 sq. meters. When I wanted to renew my visa for staying in the Philippines, that’s where I went…usually…but that’s a different story.
At the start of 2012, we’d begun work on our major project for the Philippines. It was a product aimed at helping people discover new places to do the things Filipinos love to do. Think Yelp, but specific to the Philippines, because Yelp didn’t exist there yet. It was still a fairly new concept in the States.
So we just pull a database of places from Google or Foursquare, right? Err, nope. Their database coverage for Manila was horrible. Our success depended on having accurate listings, and their databases were inaccurate, incomplete, and wholly unusable.
We had to map the entire metro area ourselves.
My job was to help build the internal tools necessary to complete that task. Since mobile internet access in Manila was spotty, we needed an app that could work entirely local to the device. Our dedicated team of mappers would then use the app, add details about places (name, address, GPS coordinates, whether or not it had parking, wifi…even add a photo of the storefront), then sync that back up to our database whenever they go somewhere with more reliable internet.
I even got the opportunity to go out with the mapping team from time to time. It was a chance to use the app we built, see how the process worked in the real world, and provide our dev team with suggestions on how to improve the efficiency.
And so that’s what we did for several months. Every weekend I was at a new mall. Adding storefront after storefront. Taking picture after picture. But it was a chance to just see how deep this mall cultural went. And deep it got.
You’d see families spending the entire day inside malls. Not so much to shop, but to take advantage of the free airconditioning and free (albeit slow and unreliable) wifi.
You’d see couples on dates going from restaurant, to movie theatre, to bowling afterwards. All without having to step foot outside.
You’d even see a young urban professional going from store to store, sneakily snapping pictures of storefronts, then typing away furiously on his mobile device. Err, wait, that was me.
The point is, in Asia, malls are a wholly different experience than what you see in America. Over there, they become minitature resorts to cater whatever money spending pleasure you have for the day. Or the central hub for all of your life’s needs. From clinical care, to beauty salons, to routine dental cleanings, you got it done at the mall.
Oh, and of course every single one had a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. And you best know I visited every single one of them.