Memories of Spencer Plaza in Chennai

Spencer Mall in Chennai was the forerunner of the mall culture that became the craze of the nation in the late 90s, as organized retail ramped up rapidly in the boom years before stalling after the 2008 Financial Crisis.

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The Chennai landscape is all changed now – for the Millennials there are many other hip alternatives to hang out and spend their weekend. I guess they would regard it to be a stolid old-timer that needs an image makeover to keep up with the modern times.

Indeed one needs to walk down the memory lane to recall the prided place that Spencer’s Plaza occupied in our minds about two decades ago. Organized retail in the Mall format was an altogether new experience even for Chennaites who were otherwise used to the concept of retail chain stores for a variety of their needs such as consumer durables, jewellery, garments to even medicines.

Chennai was indeed leading the way when it came to driving footfalls and improving sales revenue by gunning for the volumes than the margins. Spencer Plaza, launched in 1991 (the year heralding  economic reforms), is possibly the oldest mall in India.

It was a popular hang out every evening but the crowd would jump further on the weekends and peak out during festivals. The mall was fully air-conditioned – certainly a novelty in those days and a sure relief against the sweltering heat of the city. It still lacked many amenities that are taken for granted in today’s malls. There was no cinema multiplex or gaming zone or even kids zone /play park. Premium luxury brands were available but there wasn’t a concept of structured retail housing – ‘anchor stores’ of the likes of Big Bazaar, Life Style, Shoppers Stop that could bring in the hordes.

Instead we would occupy ourselves in listening to music and buying audio cassettes, CDs and Walkman (yes just imagine that) at a popular music store. We thought it cool to find hearing sets where we could listen to music before buying it. This could be regarded to be a popular store to drive footfalls. Next door we had an equally popular retail store selling groceries, fresh fruits and veggies.

The escalators were a novelty and a sure hit with the kids. We did not see many of those in the city. Window shopping was a popular option and I guess some people spent hours just roaming around the place. We used to even attract a lot of tourists who seemed to have the place on their ‘to-do’ list.

There was a nice little book shop that was my popular haunt. I used to love chatting to the proprietor who used to personally engage with the visitors. It was a great luxury that we could buy books by using Credit Cards. I built up quite an esoteric collection due to my regular visits to the place – omnibus was the most popular option and cost-effective as well. So I have collections of the works of Ruskin Bond, O Henry, R K Narayan, P G Wodehouse, Jane Austen etc. The proprietor encouraged us to experiment in reading non-fiction as well and I particularly cherish picking up ‘The Lexus and the Olive Tree’ by Tom Friedman and ‘The Great Indian Middle Class’ by Pavan Varma.

I make it a point to visit it at least once when I am in Chennai. The incremental changes are always there but I find that the place is no longer the preferred choice of the young crowd. Indeed newer and fancier malls seem to keep sprouting all over Chennai. But an old-timer loves to visit his favourite haunt and wonder, if ever, a comprehensive image makeover would happen. People who are skeptical would be well-reminded that Spencer’s has morphed in the past as well – it opened as a Departmental Store way back in 1895.


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