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Wednesday, August 22 2018 @ 04:15 AM EDT

The Expansion of Malls and Comfort Shopping

Money MattersThere are now three full-blown US-style shopping malls in Panama city. The El Dorado shopping center is going through a major renovation to keep pace. Investors are pouring money into franchises, making big bets on the strength of the Panamanian retail economy and continued economic consumption. My, how things have changed.

If you have not been to Panama City in the last five years, you really will not believe the amount of growth and expansion that has taken place lately, especially in the construction of apartment buildings, commercial and office buildings, and retail sales space in the form of indoor, air conditioned, US style malls.

The first to open was the Albrook Mall, which is built right new to the "Grand Terminal," the central bus terminal for catching a bus to go to the interior of the country. This mall was built by the same guys who did the Los Pueblos development, out between Tumbo Muerto and Via Espana going towards the airport.

The first Los Pueblos shopping center was a big success, due to the huge population growth in that area as Panama City expanded out toward the airport. But, Los Pueblos was a tradional style "strip mall" construction style, with outdoor parking and with patrons walking from store to store outside. The stores are not interconnected and the common spaces are not airconditioned. So, it's really a shopping complex and not a mall.

The builders of Los Pueblos took the lessons learned and applied new concepts to the Albrook Mall. The Albrook Mall basically "wraps around" the Grand Terminal. There are a lot of people who travel to and from the interior via the bus system, and they do a lot of their shopping in this mall. But, one down side to the Albrook Mall is that it's big. Be prepared to do a lot of walking because it's very spread out. It's a great place for "mall walking" if there's anyone who does that kind of stuff.

There are several of the less expensive stores represented in the Albrook Mall, such as the Oca Loca and Conway. These places are owned by the retailers who have made millions of dollars over the years with their investments first in the Colon Free Trade Zone, and with stores in Calidonia, Via Espana, and El Dorado. They simply followed their customers to the new bus terminal.

And, the Albrook Mall continues to grow with the eventual construction of an events venue (like, a small stadium for concerts and the like) and a hotel. They are now putting the finishing touches on the most recent expansion (down past the food court) and I'm told that the anchor store on the far end will be a Walmart. I'll believe that when I see it, but for now it's rumor. Finally, there's supposed to be a bowling alley and (get this) an ice skating rink going in there as well.

The place is always full of shoppers, and they are all carrying bags. That means they are spending money and the stores seem to be doing pretty well.

The most recent edition to the mall scene is the Multiplaza Pacific mall which was built on the old Paitilla Airport property. This is a full-blown US style air conditioned two-story (plus) mall, with great stores, a food court, movie theater, and stores you would recognize such as Cinnabon. There's also a Riba Smith grocery store in this place, a Do-It center, Panafoto, and other anchor stores to attract customers. It's sitting in the middle of Paitilla and they seem to be doing very well. The paint is hardly even dry, and many stores have not opened yet, but so far I like this place.

The Multicentro opened a couple of years ago now, and it sits on the other side of Punta Paitilla from the Multiplaza Pacifica. This is also a US style fully enclosed and air conditioned mall, with a food court and movie theater, as well as a casino and an ajoining five-star hotel. But, the builders are charging high rents and several of the original stores have closed and pulled out. When I go there, I tend to walk around and look, maybe eat lunch or catch a movie, but the prices are too high compared to other places. I don't spend a lot of money there.

The structure itself is four stories of stacked stores, with parking in a too-large garage out back. My personal prediction is that the retailers in this complex will be the first to die out because of lower prices from competetors, and eventually the property will be re-priced to allow tenants to compete in the new marketplace. Right now, I don't think a lot of people are getting rich in this complex.

The dinosaur of the mall scene is the El Dorado shopping complex. These stores are all owned by individual investors who have been in this market for a long time. They see the writing on the wall, and they know that they are sitting on some prime real estate. So, they are making a large investement to keep up with the competition. They are adding on a food court and an updaded movie theater complex, will be closing and air conditioning the entire interior space, and will be doing a facelift in the common areas. They already have the Rey supermarket as an anchor and a casino inside, and sit right in the middle of a hugh residential consumer area, so they are positioned well for the middle class convience market. El Dorado will eventually do well and will survive easily. Making this upgrade is a smart business decision.

If you want to see where Mom and Pop Panamanian goes shopping for bargains, check out the Los Andes complex on Transistmica at the end of the Corredor Norte. This is another Los Pueblos-style shopping complex built in a strip mall style, and all of the stores are the economy class and lower priced merchandise, priced for bargain hunters. You can spend the day looking for good prices on off-brand knockoffs and cheaper goods cranked out by sweatshops around the world. Cheap is the key draw here.

Also, you can't miss Calidonia and Calle Central. This area represents the first big "expansion" out of the center of old Panama City and Santa Ana and was built up mostly in the 1920's after the Panama Canal was opened. These shops are now owned by the third or fourth generation of savvy haggler, and you can still find bargain prices on everything. But keep one hand on your wallet and be aware for the hustlers and theives who will try to prey on your obvious tourist appearance. You can't blend in so don't even try. That having been said, as long as you take simple precauctions against pick-pockets there really is no reason not to explore into the nooks and crannies of Calidonia. It should be on your "don't miss" list of things to do if you want to get the real flavor of Panama City at street level.

Panama offers every possible option to shoppers, from bargain hunters to the richest and most discerning shoppers. You can choose between comfort and convience, selection, safety and security when deciding where to shop. The recent explosive expansion of retail space means that, in a zero-sum world, eventually some stores will beat out others, and the consumers win in the end. There's a lot of great shopping in Panama, and it just keeps getting better.

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