What Is The Role Of A Real Mall As Opposed To A Virtual One? Mitsui Outlet Park Sapporo Kitahiroshima's Search For Community Development

A giant mall with approximately 180 stores, ranging from high end luxury brands to casual brands

Outlet malls are generally located at a distance from urban centers. They are often detached from the local community and regarded as theme parks or tourist spots. When taking this into account, Mitsui Outlet Park Sapporo Kitahiroshima, which is packed with mainly local customers, is a little different. We looked into the secrets of this community-based outlet mall.
Words by Inoue Yumi
Photographs by Kurose Michio
Translation by Xene Inc.

11 years after its opening, this outlet mall has established its position in the community.

The Mitsui Outlet Park Sapporo Kitahiroshima (MOP Sapporo Kitahiroshima) opened in April 2010, eleven years ago, between Sapporo and New Chitose Airport. As the name Sapporo Kitahiroshima suggests, the facility is located in Omagari of Kitahiroshima, close to the border with Sapporo. The mall was developed in a good location, approximately 300 meters from the Kitahiroshima Interchange of the Hokkaido Expressway, as part of Kitahiroshima's land readjustment project.
The mall was opened at the same time when there was an influx of Chinese tourists buying goods in bulk, and the number of visitors has been steadily increasing. The number of foreigners visiting by tourist bus increased by 3.5 times in the first three years after the opening, and a plan for the second phase of development was finalized. After additional floor space was constructed, the mall was upgraded on a massive scale with about 30,000 square meters of retail space and around 180 stores in April 2014.
Yasuda Yuki, project leader at Mitsui Fudosan Co., Ltd. talked about this expansion.
"In addition to local customers, we have been projecting a certain number of tourists traveling through New Chitose Airport since 2010. However, we received more inbound tourists from China, Taiwan and other Asian countries than we had expected which we believe contributed to the increase in floor space.”
Each tenant has taken both hard and soft measures, such as employing staff who can speak foreign languages, accepting the Chinese payment service "WeChat Pay," and setting up counters where one-stop duty-free procedures can be completed.

Project leader Yasuda of Mitsui Fudosan (left) and manager Kikuta of Mitsui Fudosan Retail Management, who is in charge of mall operations.

From daily fresh foods to the high end brands everyone loves

MOP Sapporo Kitahiroshima has experienced success due to inbound demand, as other outlet malls possibly have as well. But what makes this outlet mall different from others is the large presence of local customers.
"There is a produce stand in a prominent location next to the main entrance, where fresh vegetables picked that morning, fish caught that morning, freshly baked bread, sweets, and other items are popular among local customers. I was surprised when I first arrived here and saw that an outlet mall could sell fresh foods."
These words come from Kikuta Hidesugu, the manager of Mitsui Fudosan Retail Management, which is responsible for the operation of the outlet mall. He has been involved in the operation four commercial facilities of the Mitsui Fudosan Group in Kanagawa, Saitama, and other areas, including LaLaPort.
"Hokkaido Loco Farm Village offers fresh produce. There are no stores like this in the Kanto Area that provide agricultural and marine products. I think this is something unique to Hokkaido."

As you enter the main entrance, you will see a farmer’s vegetable market. Like a supermarket or a roadside station, it is crowded with many people.

Further in, there is an event space called Elfin Court where a limited time Fresh Vegetable Marche was being held.
Manager Kikuta commented, "Many people come here for the seasonal vegetables and fruits, which makes the customers happy and also benefits the producers. We are pleased to be able to serve as a hub by providing a place for them."
Sometimes, the producers even come to the sales floor to sell their products themselves. This kind of generosity is perhaps one of the characteristics of Hokkaido, where you can find everything from the most admired brands to freshly harvested produce.

The event space Elfin Court. The Fresh Vegetable Marche was being held when we visited.

Collaboration with local government and businesses

The development of a large-scale mall is closely related to urban planning and transportation development, so it is necessary to coordinate with the government in advance. However, even if a commitment is made at the development stage, there is not much collaboration at the operation stage.
Despite this, MOP Sapporo Kitahiroshima has continued to have a good relationship with the city of Kitahiroshima since its opening. One example is the Hokkaido no Kizuna Project, a collaboration with local businesses, producers, and educational institutions.
"In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, public facilities were closed, and events and activities were cancelled. In response to this, we took various initiatives to deepen ties with the local community every month, such as offering a special outdoor venue on our site to hold the Kita-no-Sake Festival in Kitahiroshima, food stalls set up by the Kitahiroshima Restaurant Association and the Youth League of the Society of Commerce and Industry, as well as a performance by a high school brass band that had lost the opportunity to perform, which was broadcast on a large screen at the Sapporo Dome.”
People of all age levels visit MOP Sapporo Kitahiroshima and take home happy memories, such as friends coming to support local events or grandparents coming to see a children's art exhibition at the children's center.

"In the past, we rented out space for a fee and focused on how to increase the real estate value, in other words, we were focused on profitability. However, we now live in a time when you can buy as many things as you want on the Internet. Real malls are no longer just places to buy things at low prices, but are now expected to provide hands-on experiences that can be enjoyed by friends and families on weekends.”
Although it is currently not open due to the COVID-19 pandemic, MOP Sapporo Kitahiroshima’s event stage is available for use free of charge to the local community as a place for presentations. Perhaps such efforts have gained traction, but even with the COVID-19, the number of visitors has not diminished.
"Even with the difficulty of attracting visitors over a wide area, the local people are still coming. We have no choice but to be patient for now, but I would like to take it as a positive sign that we are supported by the community," said Yasuda, expressing his gratitude to the local customers.

A gigantic mall with around 180 stores. This is also a community where a lot of people work.

Contributing to urban development as the core of the local community

Construction is underway on the Hokkaido Ball Park, a new stadium for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in Kitahiroshima, which is scheduled to open in 2023. When it is completed, MOP Sapporo Kitahiroshima is looking forward to working with the new stadium.
“Last year, when pro baseball games were held without spectators, we held a Drive-in Baseball event where people could watch the games from their cars in the parking lot of the mall. Once a year, for a game we sponsor, we broadcast a performance by a local high school brass band on the jumbotron at the stadium. We have worked on various projects in the past, and I hope we can do something together with the ballpark," said manager Kikuta.

There are also plans to further strengthen cooperation with the city of Kitahiroshima.
A panel exhibition of the manga Puratanasu No Mi - Pediatric Medical Channel, which is set in Kitahiroshima, was held in August, 2021. This is a popular new work by Higashimoto Toshiya, the author of Theseus no Fune, which was made into a TV drama. It was a great PR opportunity for the city of Kitahiroshima, as it featured many scenes familiar to its residents.
"Even after COVID-19 is wiped out in the future, what's important is how to increase the number of fans in the local community and have them keep coming back. If we don't make MOP Sapporo Kitahiroshima a solid part of people's lifestyles, it won't stay in business for long.”
Manager Kikuta's words were filled with his reaffirmed desire to be close to the local community due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This place where people gather is the core of urban development.

The word outlet refers to a place of outflow. What we look for in a place for products to outflow is more than just cheapness. We want visitors to experience a sense of excitement at the prospect of finding something unexpected, a sense of elation at having plenty of time to enjoy shopping, and a sense of happiness at being able to spend time with friends and family. This collective enjoyment is the true appeal of a real mall, something that cannot be found on the Internet.

Places where many people want to go can create a lively atmosphere and naturally foster a variety of interactions. I believe that outlet malls that are firmly connected to the local community will continue to increase their presence as the core of the local community and the center of urban development.

Mitsui Outlet Park Sapporo Kitahiroshima

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