Special Feature

An SM Mall Story (As Told By 3 Malls) – Part 1: An Introduction

The Christmas season is in full swing as people are trooping the shopping malls to buy Christmas gifts or to check out any of those Yuletide events happening in those malls. The Urban Roamer can bet any one of the 18(!) SM shopping malls in the metropolis would be one of the malls you’ll check out.

Incidentally, this year marks SM’s 60th anniversary. Yes, SM has existed for that long, going way back to Henry Sy Sr.’s original shoe store business in Quiapo named ShoeMart (which was eventually shortened to SM as he began to expand his business to become a full-fledged department store). However, it can be argued that it was not until it began building shopping malls more than 30 years ago that SM grew into what it is today, entering into the greater public consciousness.

Far from the humble shoe store of old, the SM of today is the undisputed giant in Philippine retail. With the growing number of SM malls being built across the country, SM’s presence has become quite ubiquitous, becoming cherished landmarks in any community, as well as serving as an indicator of that area’s economic progress.  

On a macro-level, SM popularized and propagated the Filipino mall culture of today.  If not an actual SM mall, every large town and city in the country aspired to have a shopping mall of its own as a sign of “progress”. And developers like Robinsons, Ayala, Gaisano, even Jollibee-Mang Inasal’s Tan-Caktiong and Sia, rushed to have a slice of the shopping mall pie.

So for this year’s Christmas in the City, the Urban Roamer has decided to tackle on something that’s been in the pipeline for quite a while now, and in a unique way. Yes, the Urban Roamer is going to talk about the story of the SM mall. But instead of painstakingly looking at all the SM malls especially in the metropolis, we will look at 3 particular SM malls which best showcase SM’s history and evolution as a mall developer, finding out what made them stand out as an SM mall and how each of them made a mark in the urban landscape.

Building the City

While SM would not begin building a shopping mall of its own until 1985, the seeds for such development were planted way back in the 1960s, when Henry Sy began expanding his ShoeMart store and penetrated the urban centers of Cubao and Makati. An SM Department Store near his old ShoeMart in Quiapo was opened in 1972, making it the first SM Department Store. Eventually, the Cubao and Makati ShoeMarts became SM Department Stores themselves while another SM Department Store was opened in Harrison Plaza.

The first SM Department Store in Quiapo, now known as the SM Clearance Outlet

Prominent as they were, in the grand scheme of things, these SM department stores were only part of a greater shopping landmark. The SM in Quiapo was just part of the greater Quiapo-Santa Cruz shopping district, SM Makati that of the Makati Commercial Center (before it became known as Ayala Center), SM Cubao of Araneta Center, and SM Harrison Plaza of…well, Harrison Plaza. 

It’s been said that Henry Sy Sr. came upon the idea of building a shopping mall after seeing the thriving shopping malls in his trips abroad and thinking that such developments would do well here. However, there seems to be more to it than just adapting a foreign concept to a local setting. It seems to be more than just seeing the shopping mall as the next step in SM’s growth as a brand and a business.

Henry Sy Sr. (photo via Investmine)

At that point, Sy already may have envisioned SM as more than just a part of a shopping district or complex or, as some would say, being just “one of those”. It seems not far off to speculate that by then, his vision for SM was to be THE shopping complex/district in itself, not having to share competition, profits, and land, as opposed to what he was dealing with at that time.

Taking that theory into account, it does seem to explain why Henry Sy Sr. decided to build his first SM mall in the area at the corner of EDSA and North Avenue. As the area had low to medium-scale commercial development (the site of the future SM mall itself was a grassy field at the time), Sy’s planned mall was envisioned to be a prominent, premier commercial development in the area. He certainly did not mind the critics who chastised him for building a commercial complex in the “middle of nowhere” as he was already living by the “build it and they will come” principle long before the film “Field of Dreams” would popularize it in 1989.

Photo via SM Investments

With Trinoma many years away, competition was most certainly very far in Sy’s mind during that time he was trying to get his SM mall built as he was facing a greater challenge, perhaps as well the greatest challenge he faced as a businessman. Indeed, that period was a period of great economic instability and uncertainty as Ninoy Aquino’s assassination in 1983 and the growing dissatisfaction towards then Pres. Ferdinand Marcos shook the country to the core. Not a few of Sy’s friends and business peers advised him to at least put off the construction of the mall out of concern that his venture would fail at such a bad economic climate.

But Henry Sy Sr. is a highly-driven businessman, the type of businessman who will still say go when others say stop. It was this attitude that has played an important role in SM’s growth from shoe store to department store in the first place. So true to form, he kept going and ignored the many “prophecies of doom” for his venture. There was no doubt his relentlessness and ambition, not to mention his optimism for this venture, helped him carry on even as the threat of failure was ever more real at that tumultuous period.

To be continued…

Acknowledgements as well to SM Investments


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