Japanese retail group Aeon opened a vast new shopping mall in Wuhan on Wednesday, offering experiences to draw in customers who increasingly buy what they need online.
The Aeon Mall Wuhan Jiangxia, the company’s first opening in China since 2021, has 288,000 square meters of floor space, making it one of the group’s largest in Asia.
It offers about 260 stores, including Japanese chains like Fast Retailing’s Uniqlo and Ryohin Keikaku’s Muji, as well as local businesses such as Nicepet, a pet shop founded in Wuhan.
The biggest feature is the 12,000-sq. meter entertainment area, which features a go-kart track, archery, virtual reality sports and an indoor petting zoo with animals like alpacas and piglets.
“I usually only shop online, but it’s really interesting to have so many different stores,” said a woman in her 20s in the mall on Wednesday.
This experience-oriented concept is meant to dispel the image of malls being just a place to shop. Parents and children were out enjoying a rooftop area with natural grass on opening day.
“If this was one of our past malls, this probably would have been a parking lot,” Aeon Mall President Yasutsugu Iwamura said.
Aeon has 22 shopping malls in China and aims to continue opening locations mainly in inland areas, according to Iwamura.
Aeon plans to open 51 malls overseas by February 2026, of which 28 are slated to be in China.
Online shopping took off in China during the country’s zero-COVID pandemic lockdowns. Since the end of those restrictions, Chinese consumers have been looking for in-person shopping again.
A trend toward experienced-centered malls could be seen at Chinese real estate developer Dalian Wanda Group’s new mall in Beijing, which opened at the end of September. Visitors are greeted by a 64-meter-long escalator, stretching from the first to the sixth floor. During the two-minute ride, a display the size of six tennis courts entertains riders with digital images.
The word “shopping” is nowhere to be found in Wanda’s promotional material on social media. During a recent trip, almost all visitors were looking at the displays and taking photos of each other.
While Wanda carries heavy debt from its past investment spree, it is still China’s biggest mall operator, opening 12 new locations in the first half of this year to bring its total to nearly 500.
Even so, e-commerce is becoming the main retail battleground. Online platforms from companies such as Alibaba and JD.com accounted for 27% of China’s RMB 44 trillion (USD 6 trillion) in retail sales of consumer goods last year, according to official data, a jump of about 16 percentage points from 2015.
Even after COVID lockdowns were lifted, many customers did not return to supermarkets and big-box electronics stores, huge numbers of which have closed.
“Physical stores are more expensive, and it’s tiring to walk around looking for things to buy,” said a Beijing woman in her 20s.
Aeon has been focusing more on its digital strategy, seeing a combination of online and brick-and-mortar retail as key to competing with rivals like Wanda.
It opened the Aeon Digital Management Center, a research and development hub, in Hangzhou in 2019, and has added features to its app such as online grocery shopping and self-checkout. In 2020, it set up a studio for live commerce at an Aeon Mall in China.
One cause of concern is China’s sluggish economy. Official statistics show that the consumer price index in September was unchanged from a year earlier as households tightened their purse strings.
Iwamura struck an upbeat tone. “Japan’s Aeon Mall grew large while the economy faced deflation after the asset-price bubble burst,” he said.
There are also the added risks foreign companies face while operating in China. In August, Japanese cosmetics and other products were hit with boycotts over the release of treated wastewater from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan.
Aeon operates abroad in China and Southeast Asia, with China alone accounting for roughly 40% of total overseas sales. But operating profit generated in China is only a fifth of that of Southeast Asia, partly because of Aeon’s heavy upfront investments in digital and other areas.