Emmanuel Ugwu writes that since Governor Okezie Ikpeazu inaugurated the Abia Mall in Umuahia, shoppers have been reveling in new shopping experience
For a state synonymous with commercial activities, Abia State is replete with markets, including the famous Ariaria International Market in the commercial city of Aba. But none of the markets scattered in various parts of the state offered residents conveniences associated with departmental stores. But all that has changed with the arrival of Shoprite which opened business at the newly built Abia Mall located at the north end of the capital city, Umuahia. Residents erupted in ecstasy as they trooped to Shoprite to experience what they had been hearing about or watching on television. It was an endless stream of thousands of people trooping to the mall to experience the novelty.
“It’s really a new experience for them (Umuahia residents),” said Musa Usman, the branch manager of Shoprite Umuahia. He told THISDAY that it was obvious that some of the people might have seen Shoprite elsewhere and it was a pleasant surprise for them to see it right in their area hence their unbridled happiness. “Yes, the joyous mood was infectious on the faces of the shoppers and the smiling young men and women attending to them having gained employment at Shoprite.” Usman said that over 60 per cent of the employees are Abians.
Armstrong Iwuoha, who works in Umuahia but said he was a regular visitor to Shoprite at Owerri where he usually spends his weekends, could not hide his feelings after shopping at the new mall at Umuahia. “It’s a good thing for Umuahia,” he enthused. Similar sentiment was also expressed by Mrs. Gloria Abiakam, a staff of the Federal Ministry of Information, Umuahia office. According to her, the addition of Abia Mall to the infrastructural aesthetics of Abia capital city “is a sign of development.” “Nobody knew that such a thing would happen in Umuahia,” she added. It was actually made possible through the initiative of the immediate past governor of Abia, Senator Theodore Orji. While in office, he developed the appetite for striving to replicate any good thing he saw in other places he had visited. Shopping mall was one of such beautiful infrastructures he saw elsewhere and felt the compelling need for it to be replicated in Umuahia. It was the same motive that made him to build the Abia Specialist Hospital and Diagnostic Centre and the ultra modern Ophthalmology Centre to replicate what he saw in the United States after he returned from a medical trip.
Before the coming of Abia Mall to Umuahia , neighbouring states of Enugu and Imo were already enjoying the modern shopping experience offered to customers by Shoprite. But it was just a matter of time before Umuahia joined the league. Orji saw the need to further expand the infrastructure base of Umuahia and a shopping mall was a fitting addition. Towards the end of his second term in office as governor, the Orji-led administration entered into a partnership with a private developer for the construction of the mall at the Old Garki area of the city. It was conceived and executed as a Public Private Partnership (PPP) with the state government-owned Abia Retail Company Limited and a private developer as the partners. Before the project came into fruition, the Department of Arts and Culture and the Abia State Universal Education Board (ASUBEB) had to be relocated to make way for the mall. After the ground breaking ceremony skeptics expressed doubt about the possibility of completing the project more so as Ochendo, name given to Orji by his admirers, was on his way out of government house. Eventually it turned out not to be an abandoned project as work did not stop after he left office. His successor, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu kept paying regular inspection visits to the construction site to ensure completion of the project.
The project director of the firm that designed and built the Abia Mall, Mr. Chuka Okoye, said that the project escaped being caught up by the economic recession plaguing the nation as it had gone far before recession set in. Apparently the state government and the developers had both kept to their terms of the agreement in the PPP hence the execution of the Abia Mall was not delayed even after Ochendo had left office. Okoye said that the developers entered into the public private partnership with Abia government to build the mall since his company was already in the business of designing and developing shopping malls across Nigeria, saying such facilities were already in operation in Enugu, Ilorin, Ibadan, Onitsha and Owerri. “We believe that every state in Nigeria should have a retail mall as in other nations,” he said, adding that Umuahia was well positioned to have a shopping mall and residents would definitely enjoy the low prices and quality goods.
On November 24, 2016 when the Abia Mall was formally inaugurated by Governor Ikpeazu he poured encomiums on his predecessor for initiating this important economic project. He said that Senator Orji displayed visionary leadership in initiating the project, which has become one of the economic legacies he bequeathed to Abia. The Abia chief executive, also pointed out that the Abia Mall would provide employment opportunities for Abians and also contribute to the internally generated revenue of the state.
According to him, the mall has also contributed to the aesthetic beauty of the state capital. Orji, who was present at the ceremony together with his wife, Mercy, to witness his dream come true said that he was very happy that the project has been completed, noting that it would boost the economy of the state. The Abia Central senator recalled that “there were many obstacles (along the way) when we started the project” adding that “today it has come to fruition and it has become one of the legacy projects that will stand the test of time.”
As a governor Orji had built a number of modern markets, including the Ubani Ibeku Market, New Industrial Market at Ahiaeke Ndume and the Spare Parts Market at Ohia. These new markets replaced Umuahia Central Market, Timber Market and Ngbuka Market respectively that were all demolished and relocated from the city centre to the new markets at the outskirts. With the opening of the Abia Mall there was palpable fear that it would affect the commercial fortunes of traders in the markets and shop owners in the capital city. But Orji allayed the fears of Umuahia traders over the likelihood of bad business due to the presence of Shoprite in the capital city.
According to him, the shop owners in the city and traders in the markets would continue to enjoy the patronage of their customers.
Even at that, the branch manager of Shoprite insists that everybody operates in an open competition and consumers were at liberty to choose where to go for shopping. Shoppers are already falling in love with the new shopping experience. Iwuoha said that Umuahia traders “are in trouble because “prices of goods are far cheaper and they sell original goods.” He further stated that the convenience of buying all that you need under one roof is an added attraction for his patronage of Shoprite.
“When you come here you buy more than you expect because there are lots of things to buy,” he said, adding, “You over buy”. Mrs. Abiakam said that shopping at the mall “saves you a lot of stress” associated with going to the market or going from one shop to another to pick the items one needed at any point in time. Nonetheless she agreed that the shops out there in the city and the traders in the market would still retain their customers as “Shoprite is elitist and not for those at the lower rung of the ladder.”
The Abia Mall has become a tourist attraction for residents of Umuahia and environs. Many of them visit Shoprite everyday not only to shop but also to relax. As the Abia capital city currently lacks an amusement park the mall has come to take up that role. Young boys and girls go there for sightseeing and window shopping. They take photographs as evidence of their visits to the new bride in town. Still there are those that just go to Shoprite to buy its bread. The bread has become so popular that every evening a human traffic forms at the selling point of the oven fresh bread with people jostling in unwieldy queue to pay for and grab a loaf or more. On this particular day of December 15, 2016 the queue was so long that bread consumers stayed for hours to make a purchase. One of the customers, Ben Chukwukere told THISDAY that he got frustrated after waiting for so long and people were pushing and shoving him, adding that he eventually had to go home and buy bread in town. According to him, it was evident that the sales people were overwhelmed by the number of people wanting to buy Shoprite bread on that particular evening.
Despite the ecstasy with which Umuahia residents welcomed Shoprite and the magnetic pull it is already exerting on them, observers are expressing doubt on the sustainability of the new shopping experience. But the branch manager insisted that there was no cause for alarm as “Shoprite has come to stay” in the capital of God’s own state. As at now commercial activities at the Abia Mall have not gone into full swing. Shoprite is still the major tenant as other major retail companies are yet to take up the shops. And shoppers expect to see other retailers in specialised lines of business in the mall. “We expect that clothing lines and other things would come up,” Abiakam said. She also advised the owners of the mall to consider introducing games arena or amusement park as a component of the shopping complex. May be such facilities would eventually be added as Okoye has stated that the Abia Shopping Mall is “a long term project”.
One major flaw that customers have noticed at the mall is the issue of security. For instance, Mr. Imo Thomas, an Umuahia-based journalist pointed out that the indemnity notice boldly displayed on the wall near the entrance of the mall was “disturbing”. He argued that it was not proper for the owners of the mall to place every security risk on the shoulders of shoppers. According to him, there should be conscious effort on the part of the mall owners to protect lives and property of those that visit the mall for shopping. Thomas pointed that a situation where customers drive their cars into the parking lot without tags issued to them exposed their vehicles to car thieves. He reasoned that thieves could easily drive a stolen car away without being required to present any identification as proof of ownership.
With the introduction of the shopping mall to the infrastructural landscape of Umuahia would certainly excite indigenes as they arrive for the Christmas and New Year celebrations. It would equally be a pleasant surprise for them by the time they discover that the modern shopping facility they were already used to in the big cities has finally arrived at the capital city of their own state. They would discover that Umuahia has continued to grow after the Ochendo touch as it has shed the toga of a glorified village.