BANDUNG, West Java: The two-storey clothing store sat on a busy road in central Bandung city.
Despite the general bustle in the area, things were quiet in the shop, with more store clerks than shoppers.
The establishment next door fared no better despite touting a massive year-end discount, with polo shirts going for as low as 25,000 rupiah (US$1.7) each.
There were cars in the parking lots, but visitors headed straight for the food vendors and stalls surrounding the main buildings, instead of the factory outlets located within.
Ms Restianti, 41, a manager at a Bandung factory outlet called The Secret, said it has been this way for the last four years.
The manager, who like many Indonesians go with one name, said the store used to welcome 4,000 visitors on weekends and 1,000 on weekdays.
“Tourists used to come in droves and the parking lots used to host buses instead of cars.”
Today, the figure is a quarter of what it was, forcing Ms Restianti to cut back on the number of employees from 100 to 50.
And The Secret is not alone. One by one, factory outlets in Bandung – once an important draw for visitors – have closed their doors. Taking their place are cafes, restaurants and other attractions that cater to Instagram travellers.
According to the Bandung Trade and Industry Agency, the number of companies operating factory outlets in Bandung fell from 98 in 2009 to 40 today.
“There used to be 30 or 40 factory outlets just on this one road. Now you can count them with two hands,” Ms Restianti said of the once-famous Riau Street.
Right now, The Secret is still operating at a profit. But Ms Restianti is afraid that the situation will continue to deteriorate and her store will have no choice but to shut down.
Meanwhile, the adjacent Dago Street, once considered the epicentre of Bandung’s factory outlet scene, is now almost completely devoid of clothing shops.
A CITY IN TRANSFORMATION
The dwindling number of factory outlets in Bandung serves as yet another example of the retail scene going downhill. In a worldwide phenomenon some have dubbed the “retail apocalypse”, brick-and-mortar stores are finding it difficult to compete with online platforms.
From the ashes of the factory outlets, a bustling culinary scene has emerged.
In 2014, Bandung had 291 restaurants and cafes. By the end of last year, this figure had more than doubled to 795. This is separate from more than 70,000 street vendors and small food stalls operating in the city.
All across Bandung, there are streets and backroads which are completely overrun with cafes, bistros and restaurants. One example is Progo Road, which has completely transformed from an upscale residential area to a trendy culinary hotspot frequented by the city’s youths.
Meanwhile on Braga Street, run-down art deco buildings that used to house businesses and offices have been turned into hip cafes, restaurants and bars.
And virtually all of the eateries have one thing in common: they are instagrammable.
Mdm Kenny Dewi Kaniasari, chief of the Bandung Tourism Agency said with the decline in number of tourists looking to shop at factory outlets, the city is developing its culinary scene.
“We are trying to diversify our tourist attractions and right now food seems to be what tourists are after. We are encouraging people to be as creative as possible and turn their properties into a destination for tourists,” she told CNA.
Around 7 million tourists visit Bandung every year, and 60 to 70 per cent of them are millennials.
“They (millennials) need wi-fi, somewhere to charge their phones, a place to hang out and socialise and they need to take selfies. That’s why businesses, particularly restaurants and cafes in Bandung, are creating a space that can cater to all their needs,” she added.
So far, this seems to be creating a real impact.
On Braga Street, eateries with the most customers were the ones that offer themed interiors, intricate details and decorated walls to serve as backdrops.
The government has also played a part in making Bandung more instagrammable.
Since the administration of former mayor Ridwan Kamil – now the governor of West Java – the city has been developing more instagrammable public spaces.
The government has also built an elevated park on a sky bridge running along Cihampelas Street, a busy commercial centre frequented by tourists. The park has many spots for selfies and features smartphone charging stations.
FACTORY OUTLET BUSINESSES DIVERSIFYING
While this is happening, those in the factory outlet business are also diversifying.
“When I started my first factory outlet in 1995, I knew that one day people will stop coming. And when people changed the way they shop with the arrival of online shopping, I knew that the death of Bandung’s factory outlets is at our doorsteps,” businessman Perry Tristianto told CNA.
Mr Tristianto, who was once dubbed as “the King of Bandung’s factory outlets”, now only operates three stores. He used to operate 27 of them during the retail heydays.
His company has since branched out to other areas, operating three amusement parks in Bandung’s hilly suburbs of Lembang as well as owning several hotels and restaurants in the Greater Bandung area.
“As a businessman, you have to know where the market is going and adapt. Otherwise, you won’t survive,” he said.
And all of Mr Tristianto’s amusement parks are designed for the social media age.
One theme park, The Farmhouse, is made to resemble European towns. Visitors can rent traditional European costumes to fool their friends into thinking that they were in another continent.
His most recent venture is The Great Asia Africa theme park which features a miniature Japanese temple, artificial cherry blossom trees as well as its own version of the Fushimi Inari Shrine’s torii gates of Kyoto.
The theme park also has a replica of the Taj Mahal and its own take on the huts used by African tribesmen complete with a man-made savannah.
Over at the hilly suburbs of Punclut, restaurants are offering an unobstructed view of the city along with selfie spots. There is a pavement filled with suspended umbrellas, arches made out of roses and outdoor spaces lit by Christmas lights. There are also glamping grounds for outdoor lovers.
With more new cafes and restaurants in Bandung, the competition is stiff.
In some areas, cafes can be no more than 50 to 100m away from each other. And according to cafe owner Ucok Silitonga, there can be five to 10 new competitors every month.
“When I started my coffee business in 2014, you can still count the number of cafes with your hands. Baristas knew each other. We were all part of the same community. We were friends. In the last two years or so, the scene has started to get crowded,” the 37-year-old told CNA.
Despite the fierce competition, Mr Silitonga said the number of customers coming to his cafe, Daily Routine, is growing.
“There are now more people looking for good, quality coffee. People are starting to appreciate what we have to offer. Tourists are starting to feel the need to check out the local coffee scene instead of going to big coffee chains,” he said.
“The key to surviving in a saturated market is to have your own style and your own signature drinks. You need to give people a reason to come back.”
STREET FOOD HAS A ROLE TOO
What about the thousands of small vendors and food stall owners selling food on pavements next to an open sewer or those operating on dilapidated and dimly lit shops?
Mdm Kaniasari said the tourism agency is working with other government departments to make sure they are not left behind.
“We need to educate these vendors that tourists are not only looking for good products but also experience. You need cleanliness, hygiene, provide comfortable spaces for your customers and have a good and reliable service,” she said.
“The challenge is to get these vendors to understand that they can no longer be just a food seller. They need to think of themselves as a tourism player.”
What is the prognosis for Bandung’s culinary scene? Could it go the same way as the factory outlets?
Mr Muhammad Rifky, owner of Dapur Suami Istri (Husband and Wife’s Kitchen) said that he is sanguine.
“Growing up in Bandung, I have seen the city transforming itself from time to time. Before, people only come to Bandung to visit the hilly suburbs, then they came for the cheap jeans and clothes and now they come for the food,” he recounted.
“The culinary scene is all the rage right now, but it doesn’t mean people stop shopping or stop visiting tourist attractions. If a new thing comes along, people still need to eat. They still need a place to hang out and socialise.”