JOHANNESBURG — It was just the shot of adrenaline the South African retail scene needed.
In one fell swoop, the new 322,800-square-foot Protea Court extension at the sprawling Sandton City mall in Johannesburg opened, with fast-fashion giant Zara as the anchor tenant and main attraction.

At a cocktail reception to mark the opening earlier this week, the most coveted invitation was not that of Sandton City; it was the Zara launch.  While a plastic wristband guaranteed access to the mall’s party, only an orange, blue or white string bracelet allowed access into Zara’s cordoned premises.

Encompassing 29,000 square feet and offering full collections for men, women and children, the store in South Africa marks Zara’s 80th country where it has units. According to Jesus Hernandez, parent company Inditex’s chief communications officer, the store underscores the importance of the Southern Hemisphere as a market, with its own distinct seasons and needs. In keeping with Zara’s philosophy of being responsive to its customers, he said that “the proposal must be accurate.  Since two years ago, we have double teams in terms of design, dedicated exclusively to the Southern Hemisphere.”

However, he pointed out that there would be items and styles that reflected universal trends, regardless of season or hemisphere, which would be available throughout Zara stores worldwide. 

Corporate representative Victor Herrero assured guests at the launch that merchandise would be delivered to the store twice a week, as is customary in all Zara stores. “The most important thing is to offer quality and affordability,” he added.  “The prices are affordable.  What we are trying to do with each market — we try our best to offer affordable prices because we are a mass retailer.” 

Indeed, the customer feedback on opening night and in the first morning of official trading has been “very good. We are very happy with the turnout,” he said. There were queues at the cash registers as well as at the fitting rooms, and the wait was on average 15 minutes.

Hailed as a catalyst for retail and commercial growth in the affluent Sandton suburb of Johannesburg when it first opened in 1973, Sandton City is firmly established as a super-regional shopping center, favored by locals and tourists alike. It is the first choice of location for international luxury labels looking to set up shop in the African continent. Louis Vuitton opened there in 2004; Cartier followed in 2008.

“Sandton City is one of the largest shopping centers in Africa. Its popularity, robust mix of local and international leading fashion brands and its successful trading record have made it a first choice for retail groups seeking to introduce unique new retail concepts to the cosmopolitan South African market, and a gateway to retail in Africa,” said Julie Hillary, general manager for Sandton City, which belongs to the Liberty Group.

Over the years, Sandton City has grown from 538,000 square feet and 120 stores to a total of 1.5 million square feet and 331 retailers with the new Protea Court extension. The entire complex, which includes the adjoining Sandton Sun Intercontinental Hotel & Towers, as well as office towers, now measures 2.3 million square feet. Apart from Zara, among the other international brands now represented with standalone stores in the new section are Hackett, Ben Sherman, Paul & Shark and French Connection.

“For Zara, we always try to get the best location in the best shopping malls in any market we enter,” Herrero commented.  “We are very comfortable with Sandton, the area, the people that go shopping here. For us they present the perfect customer.”

While the newly revamped Sandton City is dazzling — Protea Court is set under a dramatic 240 foot-high steel roof structure inspired by the national flower, the protea — industry analysts believe that the arrival of Zara to South African shores is the real game changer.

Trend forecaster and analyst Dion Chang opines that “the Zara business model — which has been studied by Harvard — is the polar opposite of the traditional fashion template all retail chains in SA use. It make take a while for people unfamiliar with Zara to cotton-on, but when they do, they will realize what they have been missing out on for so many years, and that’s when the real battle will begin.”

Herrero, however, was more modest. “We believe that we can be very successful in South Africa. We know that people will also shop in other shops, of course. But we are happy to offer our products, and if people want to buy from us, that’s great.  If they don’t, of course it’s not so great. At the end of the day, we’ve always worked alongside many competitors, and we’ve managed to survive. There’s room for everybody in the market.”