Ala Moana Center was a destination almost exclusively for local residents until the 1980s. That’s when things started to change.
Japanese tourists started arriving in waves for the surf and sand, and more importantly, the shopping.
“They spent a lot of money so the stores, every store, was happy,” said Fumi Matsushima, an employee with Shirokiya since 1959.
“It was realized that there was this market for really high-end merchandise that the Japanese tourists would buy,” said Bishop Museum historian DeSoto Brown.
One by one, mom-and-pop stores were replaced by high-end stores.
“I remember the change was kind of subtle, but it had to be around the ’90s, I think,” said Waipahu resident Luana Rittmeister.
“We grew up with these people. We grew up with the merchants and it was sad to see a lot of these people go,” said J.D. Watumull, president of Watumull Brothers. “These family businesses, they ended up closing and going on and doing other things.”
Today, Watumull’s is one of the few remaining original tenants, but in a different spot. The store got pushed out of the mall level down to the street level.
“We were local tenants who were not considered as good as (high-end tenants) and they wanted to give prestige to the shopping center,” said Gulab Watumull, Watumull Brothers chairman.
Banana Republic now occupies Watumull’s original spot.
The face and character of the mall changed.
“There was McKinerny, there was Andrade, there was Carol and Mary, and there was Ming’s,” Brown said. “Those were four important local merchants. They all either went out of business or got replaced by, instead, high-end European retailers.”
“There are a ton of stores I don’t even know how to pronounce their names, so I find it’s a little more higher class, not so much local,” Rittmeister said.
Stores like Iida’s couldn’t hold on and said sayonara to Ala Moana Center in 2005.
“The competition was too — It’s something we couldn’t cope with in the end,” said president Robert Iida.
It wasn’t only merchants who felt left out.
“There seems to be a lot more people now, a lot more high-priced places,” said Mililani resident Paul Ventura.
The spike in tourists was a welcome boost for stores that cater to them, like Watumull’s, but local retailers stress the importance of not forgetting your home base.
“When I opened the store Watumull store we had about 50,000-100,000 tourists. Right now it’s 8 million,” said Gulab Watumull.
“Provided that tourism continues, (the store will) be successful,” said J.D. Watumull. “Is Watumull’s going to be here for another 50 years? We hope so.”