Roberto Santiago and Manaira Shopping Demonstrate Brazil’s Rise of the Middle Class

Manaira Shopping and Owner Roberto Santiago Help Portray the Rise of Middle Class

In recent decades, Brazil has undergone a sea change when looking at the country’s middle class. Where once the nation was defined by having a large number of citizens held back by poverty, it is now increasingly common for Brazilians to climb out of that classification into a life replete with the many comforts of increased affluence. Perhaps nowhere is this change more apparent than in the growth of shopping complexes located in urban centers across the country. The state of the modern Brazilian mall makes for an interesting study that reflects changes across Brazil at large. In order to focus in on this, we took some time to examine the case of Manaira Shopping, one of the largest malls in the country. Created by entrepreneur Roberto Santiago, the mall provides a jumping off point for discussing the shifts in culture currently at play in one of the most populous countries in the world.


Growth of the middle class

In the 21st century, large swaths of the population of Brazil have climbed out of poverty and entered into the middle class. Some estimates put the increase in the Brazilian middle class at upwards of 40 million people, almost the entire population of Spain. This change can be attributed to a number of different factors, one of which would be the economy. From an international perspective, Brazil has become a major player on the global economic stage, becoming increasingly more involved in trade with many other countries in the world. Domestically as well, economic conditions have favored more and more Brazilians achieving positions of greater affluence as opportunities for business development and entrepreneurialism abound.


From a political standpoint, many conditions have changed over recent years to help favor the expansion of the middle class. Policies have been put in place that allow for the wider distribution of wealth and along with this has come a sense that it is within the reach of more Brazilians than ever to stake a claim to a piece of the economic pie. Though political instability in the country of late has placed uncertainty on some of this growth, the economic story in Brazil in recent history has been one that has many positive highlights.


With increased support from political institutions and economic policies has come a level of consistency that has allowed for the creation of long term financial plans for a broader range of Brazilians. This ability to make plans for one’s own economic future is a key component toward the emergence of the middle class. After all, without the ability to plan for the longterm, it becomes more difficult to engage in financial investments, a critical contributing factor towards longterm economic wellbeing.


Availability of consumer products

Consumerism has long been tied to the middle class in many countries. When one is too poor to afford many of life’s basic necessities, as is the case in some of the poorest areas of Latin America, the thought of any sort of consumer luxury becomes unattainable. As levels of wealth rise, however, then it becomes far more achievable for citizens to afford consumer goods. Indeed, access to these types of goods, such as home appliances, is intricately tied to the creation and expansion of shopping malls in areas where the middle class is growing.


This, of course, has also been the case in Brazil which has seen shopping malls become a fixture of modern urban life over the past few decades. Malls, like Manaira Shopping, have sprung up throughout the country to help cater to a growing national desire for consumer goods. In fact, as we’ll see, the presence of malls can actually help to grow the middle class through a number of factors as well, thereby becoming a functional part of the cycle of wealth accumulation for many Brazilians. Since shopping malls serve as concentrated areas of economic activity, they can benefit a large number of shopkeepers, entrepreneurs, and others who are seeking to profit from the growth of middle class spending.


It is perhaps self-evident that any increases in sales of consumer goods that come from the existence of malls are also beneficial to other areas of the economy as well. To take the example of designer clothing, which is produced both domestically and internationally, growth in demand tends to fuel growth in production and trade. This means that as malls and the middle class rise, so to do economic opportunities in related industries. Similar patterns can be traced for other major consumer goods such as cars, electronics, and so forth.


How malls help to stimulate local economies

One of the key points touched upon already is the ways in which shopping malls can serve to benefit both the desires of the middle class as well as the growth of the class group itself. To dive further into this idea, let’s explore the case of Manaira Shopping, which has had a profound and positive impact on its community since its inauguration nearly thirty years ago. By seeing the ways in which one shopping mall can affect the economy in its local area, it will be easier to see how this idea is playing out across the entirety of the country.


Manaira Shopping, the brainchild of entrepreneur Roberto Santiago, began construction in 1988 and opened to the public the following year. Originally built to encompass 12,000 square meters of constructed area, the complex has expanded multiple times over the past three decades to now cover 135,000 square meters. These expansions have seen changes made to the number of storefronts supported, but also to the capacity of the mall to support activity beyond retail commerce. Some of this activity includes entertainment in the form of events and movie screenings, as well as dining via food court and other fine dining options.


The mall sees almost 20 million visitors per year at its location in João Pessoa in the state of Paraíba. When speaking to residents about the condition of commerce in the city before the creation of the shopping center, they often paint a picture that illustrates the difficulty of exchanging goods at that time. Though local markets could handle some of the more immediate commercial needs of residents, such as materials for food preparation and goods to support day to day life, other items were often in short supply. Many who remember the time before the existence of the shopping center will speak of needing to take long trips to larger cities such as Rio de Janeiro in order to visit the malls there.


One thing that is clear with talk of traveling to other cities to purchase commercial goods is that such activities represented a net flow of economic activity out of the local economy of João Pessoa. With residents traveling so far out of the city to make their purchases, wealth that would have been accumulated in the city was instead passed on to merchants and entrepreneurs in other regions of the country. Such an outflow of wealth makes it hard for a locality to encourage economic development as jobs become scarcer and the ability of the government to direct funds to local projects becomes increasingly more difficult. In this way, the arrival of Manaira Shopping was not just a win for those seeking to purchase commercial goods, it was beneficial for anyone with a stake in the wellbeing of the city at large.


Infrastructural changes related to shopping centers

If you analyze the increasing trend of shopping centers in Brazil from the viewpoint of how it plays into a larger pattern of development, their success becomes less surprising than you might think. One of the reasons for this is the large-scale infrastructure changes that have been occurring throughout the country as the economy has improved. When you consider the prerequisites for any complicated entity to exist, a picture starts to emerge centered around the necessity for roads to bring supplies to a building site, or a functioning electrical infrastructure to supply power. As these infrastructures have improved in Brazil, so too has the country’s ability to support the building of shopping centers.


But beyond the necessities of infrastructure to support the creation of a building, infrastructure is necessary for the ongoing operation of something like a shopping center as well. In fact, this may be an even stronger consideration for a mall than say a factory, since the ability for a large number of people to visit a mall daily is critical to its success. Infrastructure of this type goes hand in hand with the development of a country’s middle class as it tends to facilitate the economy at large. The more that infrastructure can support business operations, the more wealth can be created in an economy.


While the level of economic development over the past few decades in Brazil has helped to create situations that could support more shopping centers, there are a host of other factors that have contributed to their rise as well. A few that may be counterintuitive are the existence of inefficiencies in public transportation and traffic management. While these systems have reached a point where they can serviceably get people in many Brazilian cities from point A to point B, they are not generally regarded as efficient enough for many multi-destination trips.


When explored deeper the idea begins to make quite a bit of sense. In a place where you can reliably get to a singular destination, but making trips to multiple destinations may take a prohibitively long time, it stands to reason that institutions that can supply one-stop shopping would thrive. For this reason, many Brazilians appreciate the ability of shopping centers to allow them to take care of a range of needs in one place.


Multi-faceted appeal

The ability to serve a variety of purposes is one of the strengths of Manaira Shopping that has been built into its design by its founder, Roberto Santiago. One of his original conceptions for the project was that the mall could serve as a gathering place for groups of many different kinds, be it social gatherings, business partnerships, or families. This idea was in part born out of conversations with his father as to the nature of what could be accomplished by creating a multi-purpose commercial structure such as he was setting out to build. Through a constant back and forth, the two collaboratively formed the idea that the shopping center, in part due to its size, could bring people together by addressing as many needs as possible.


This can be seen today in so many of the functions that the various establishments of Manaira Shopping address. An on-site gym helps shoppers to meet their fitness goals in between shopping and other activities. Various banking institutions help to provide a place where visitors can take care of financial obligations and have ready access to funds. As mentioned above, a range of dining options are in place so that groups can satisfy many different tastes while still eating together. In addition, a large cinema complex provides the opportunity for on-screen entertainment.


One renovation to the mall which has drawn a large degree of interest is the addition of Domus Hall, a rooftop event space that was added in 2009. Since its opening, the space has played host to a wide range of events including concerts, theatrical performances, cultural fairs, art exhibitions, meetings, community assemblies, and more. With its two-story construction holding upwards of 8,000 attendees at a time, the space is crafted to be a central focus of any large-scale group gathering. This again speaks to the ability of the shopping center to cater to a number of different purposes in a centralized location.


Safety benefits of shopping centers

While many of the previously listed attributes of a mall like Manaira Shopping tend to focus on the constructed features, there are other benefits that local residents enjoy when visiting such a place. Owing to these peripheral benefits, shopping centers have gone even further to not only establish themselves as a part of Brazilian daily living, but also to serve an important role in the communities they serve. One consideration in this area is the way in which they can supplement the traditional role of public parks.


Though parks can often serve to provide green space in an urban landscape, far too often they become areas in which residents are hesitant to spend time due to a reputation for criminal activity. This reputation is not unearned, as it’s true that public parks can sometimes be locations where crimes take place. This can be due to a number of issues such as the open access layout of many parks, the potential for criminals to hide in areas that are far from the street, the lack of lighting at night, and the difficulty of policing such a broad area.


By contrast, many urban residents find that a trip to a shopping center can be a safer experience that is less prone to crime than a public park. The closed construction of a mall makes it more difficult for criminals to enter and exit undetected. There is also always plenty of lighting in a shopping center, day or night. Malls also have a team of security personnel on hand to assist visitors should a crime take place. When taken as a whole, these issues start to make it clear that there are numerous benefits to holding a group gathering at a controlled location such as a shopping center.


Other community considerations

Of course, there are more benefits in this respect than just the ability to avoid crime. Since many areas of Brazil can become inhospitably hot during certain parts the year, many visitors appreciate the ability to escape the elements to the well air-conditioned environment of a shopping center. This can hold true for cold areas or seasons as well. These concerns are of particular consideration for families that may have young children or elderly members who are susceptible to environmental extremes. This again helps to illustrate a shopping center’s ability to cater to the many needs of a large group simultaneously.


In this same vein, shopping centers have an additional benefit in that they are often cleaner than many parts of dense urban areas, especially if the municipal government is having difficulty organizing various aspects of public works. When faced with a decision between organizing in a park that has become a haven for littering, or the well-cleaned facilities offered by the modern mall, many Brazilians opt for the latter. As shopping centers become ever more well-designed via advanced architectural techniques and renovations, the lines between public spaces and shopping centers will continue to blur.


This is perhaps one of the most enduring aspects of Brazilian malls and why their function put forth by entrepreneurs such as Roberto Santiago carries so much appeal to the country’s middle class. The key to that vision is its ability to fill a role that has been satisfied in the past via various public institutions. As a result, many Brazilians have come to appreciate the manner in which shopping malls provide for their needs to congregate, engage in commerce, and more. As even more Brazilians rise out of poverty and into the middle class, the services of modern shopping malls like Manaira Shopping will become increasingly in higher demand.

More about Roberto Santiago and his mall Manaira Shopping at

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