Foreign Invasion

Within the past ten months, three non-native sneaker stores opened on our shores, placing local players visibly on the edge. Looks like there may be no fighting back


Three sneaker stores

By Ray Zhang

What happened to once-major sneaker retailers such as Royal Sporting House (RHS) and World of Sports (WOS)? I found myself asking that question while standing in front of the newly opened JD Sports in ION Orchard. The dazzling store front was enough to hold me mesmerised, kicking resistance out of the way. A few doors down, RHS barely caught my eye. So what happened? To those two local stores, I mean. Nothing. Is nothing the reason why I have not visited either for a very long time? Or have some places merely receded into a corner even memory can’t reach?

Since November last year, three retailers from overseas have opened here: AW Lab, JD Sports, and Foot Locker. Despite the new players, it did not appear to me that two of our biggest sporting goods retailers, RHS and WOS, upped their game to take on the new, alluring trio. Did they not know that the competition would be fierce? When I said “nothing”, I meant no part of anything trending, no share of the unique, no trace of the stimulating. In fact, on all fronts, the merchandising and marketing hush in both stores have been deafening.

When Italy’s AW Lab opened in Suntec City last November, local sneakerheads had a foretaste of what was to come: breadth in merchandising, colour to cop not usually seen here, and releases that are not much later than those launched in Europe, which prompted one influencer-looking onlooker, shod in Nike Air VaporMax ‘Triple Black’, at the store’s launch event in the same month, to say that “AW Lab is a wet dream”!

RSHA quiet royal Sporting House at ION Orchard

When, if ever, was the last time any local retailer of sports gear enjoyed being described in such an orgiastic term? Maybe when the massive Stadium opened in basement two of Ngee Ann City some time in the now-forgotten mid-’90s. Conceived by Royal Sporting House, Stadium was a draw because it was huge (an expanse now occupied by Guardian’s flagship), and it stocked, I remember, a rather staggering selection of merchandise with a breadth that was rather rare in Singapore at the time when sports megastores were unheard of.

According to a media coverage at that time “Stadium encapsulates the crossover of sports and golf into the realm of fashion and lifestyle…” I am not sure if “into the realm of fashion” ever truly materialised, but I am certain the streetwear trend did not catch on with them as staying true to serving the needs of sports people specifically was the crux. In doing so, they did not sense consumers’ unrequited wants. Stadium languished, and finally shuttered just as the popularity of sneakers began its steady, indomitable climb.

Large or fairly large stores have, of course, not vanished entirely. There is Royal Sporting House in 313@Orchard and Intersports—owned by Sportslink—in Queensway Shopping Centre. But what kind of stores have these become, or not become? The said RSH store is now, for a good part, a sale outlet, so is Intersports. Sure, there is a market for a general sporting goods shop with a section assigned with stocks that need to be disposed quickly and cheaply, but could there not be, at the same time, by the same retailers, an alternative space that is merchandised with something more desirable, more synonymous with lifestyle kicks?

WOS P1World of Sports, buzz-lite, at Paragon

To be fair, RSH did try. In May 2016, they opened The Social Foot, a boutique space (now numbering two) conceived to give the impression of an indie retailer such as the 15-year-old Leftfoot and the 12-year-old Limited Edt (perhaps currently too big for the ‘indie’ tag, given that under parent company Sports Fashion, there are nine stores island-wide). But The Social Foot is nothing like its predecessors. While it carries some limited editions, it is, to me, not trend-focused and not exactly screaming niche appeal. It won’t be a sneakerhead haven since a large number of the merchandise is regular and are regularly found in the regular RSHs.

Some people do not consider Royal Sporting House local any more since it is now partly owned by the Al-Futtaim Group, the Dubai-based, multi-business conglomerate that is also the proprietor of Robinsons Department Store. Still, RSH is very much a part of our retail history even when it was first established in Jakarta in 1935. It has been commended for finally making a foray into the specialty store business with The Social Foot, but it has, as some footwear buyers noted, “not done enough to prep for the arrival of the big boys”. Ironically, Limited Edt has gone into RSH’s original business model, by opening, in May 2016, a more general sneaker store, Underground—a misnomer given that this is where one finds less coveted shoes or those that won’t garner a queue. It is not a store that could be kin to London’s much-followed Foot Patrol, a name of a former sneaker secret address that JD Sports bought in 2008.

The specialty store—usually smaller and has more in common, in fact, with Foot Patrol than JD Sports—became more important and influential when in December 2016, it was announced that Nike would no longer supply to “small” retailers—i.e., according to analysts, mom-and-pop businesses with indiscriminate merchandise mix and nothing-to-be-desired visual merchandising, such as those once seen in fairly large numbers in Peninsula Shopping Centre on Coleman Street—from January 2017. The news was a blow to the those players who had been operating unchanged for decades (and also those, I suspect, without a smart-looking space), and sneaker haunts such as Peninsula Shopping Centre (including its neighbour Peninsula Plaza) and Queensway Shopping Centre, already affected by customers shopping online, suffered under the weight of Nike’s unexpected decision.

What happened to sneaker haunt Queensway Shopping Centre? 

Queensway SC

Queensway Shopping Centre, opened in 1976, was once the place to go for your sneakers. It was not only where sneakerheads go, it was a place the entire family went. The main draw? The sheer variety since there were more than a dozen stores on the first floor alone. But I suspect most people went because of the price. It was only here at Queensway that you would be offered a discount of up to 30 percent on most merchandise (and 40 percent for older shoes). The lower price was also touted on guide books published in Japan and China, and was a major lure for tourists from these countries.

Last Saturday, I visited Queensway for the first time after three years. Upon entering the building from the side of Queensway and Alexandra Road intersection, I did not see people throng the place; only the smell of laksa pervaded. But what truly took me by surprise was the fewer number of sneaker shops. Many of those that remained have been refurbished to look a little smarter and less cluttered, but the merchandise selection did not match up. There were no in-demand shoes to be had other than those at Limited Edt and the Nike React Element 55 found in their sister store, Underground.

Queensway Shopping Centre used to be able to keep me interested in it shops for hours. This time, in less than 30 minutes, I was set to leave. There seems to be more optical stores than usual, with quite a few offering quick service such as that of Ownsday. People were more attracted to specialist stores that sell badminton and tennis racquets and offer attendant services than what the other sporting equipment stores were selling. The only shop that caught my attention was Bonkers Link (on the second floor), which sells outdoor brands such as Gregory, Mystery Ranch, Mammut, and the odd Helly Hansen. Queensway, amid changing sneaker retail landscape and the very real threat of e-shop competition, has lost its winning streak.

The Social Foot P1Royal Sporting House’s sub-brand The Social Foot at Suntec City

As “small” retailer is not clearly defined, I am not sure who Nike is truly targeting when it limited its distribution, or why. As I walked around the major malls and sneaker haunts to try to understand the situation, it looked to me that once-popular “small” but indie-looking retailers too are visibly lacking in their Nike offerings, such as Dot Lifestyle Concept Store, part of the property developer Link (THM) Group, as well as Star 360, of the Star 360 Group, owner of the orthopedic footwear brand MBT. Do they share the same fate as those of mom-and-pop shops? Or is this a sort of consolidating on Nike’s part as they open more of their own mono-brand stores? Or, perhaps, in my own conspiracy-theorist state of mind, Nike assisting “big” retailers in minimising competition and product saturation? If JD Sports intends to “conquer the world”, as the chain told the British press recently, it makes sense for Nike to streamline its distribution to support the conquerors of the trade.

One thing’s apparent, as the small players cater less to those who care about the newest drops, stores such as JD Sports can dominate. But, as I noticed, some indie-leaning retailers or specialist stores are reacting. One of JD Sport’s closest neighbours at ION Orchard, Seek (an SG enterprise established in 2015, and in less than three years expanded to Indonesia and Thailand), upped the ante by stocking desirable shoes in not-oft seen colours, such as those of their selection of Nike Air Max 270, well ahead of the UK store’s much-anticipated opening. Competition, as they often say, is good for consumers.

Uncommon styles and unique colours are doubtlessly important in sneaker retail and the new players are well equipped to stock “Only At” options in their respective stores. At the JD Sports opening last month, the over-attendance of influencers was met with reminders that the company has set aside part of their European stocks—“Western European exclusives”—for their SG stores and as such, local sneakerheads need not wait till they are overseas to cop what they desire. A staff at Foot Locker said something similar when I was there: “We are part of Foot Locker Europe, so we carry styles that only we get.” If all the new entrants are tapping from their European wholesale distributors, they may be ignoring those who like American and Japanese exclusives. Should we urge Kith in the US and Atmos in Japan to watch developments here?


Apart from product exclusives, something else makes shopping at the three new stores more appealing: service—affable, high-spirited service. At AW Lab in Suntec City, a staffer was effusive when it came to the qualities of Nike Air Max 270, telling me it’s “one of the most comfortable shoes in the store”, and explained the importance of a good fit after I asked to try a pair that was a mere half-size too large for me. When I subsequently said I’d think about it, he said cheerfully, “Sure, no problem. Come back any time.” While succumbing to the hunkiness of Puma’s Desert Thunder at JD Sports in ION Orchard, a sales guy urged me to try the both the available colours, but when he could not find either in my size, he asked me to leave my contact number so that I can be notified if stocks are replenished. Over at Foot Locker in Century Square, one sales chap in Yeezy 500 approached me to see if there was anything I needed. When I pointed to his shoes, he said with a knowing smile that they were not available in the store and suggested I try an online re-seller. His colleague, a boyish lass, who later revealed that she recently bought a Balenciaga Triple S, quickly recommended the Nike M2K Tekno because she thought the “latest dad shoe will look cool” on me.

Such friendly service, whether spontaneous or the result of effective training, makes one’s will weak and wallet ready. Conversely, at Limited Edt Vault and the sibling Chamber in MBS, where I am guilty of gravitating towards, the service is always not forthcoming, and is, at best, indifferent. A friend once said to me that those who visit Limited Edt “know their stuff” and what they want, and the store’s sales people see no need to go beyond getting customers’ desired size. I have never spoken to the staff about their attitude, but based on the consistent lack of salesmanship, it is not unreasonable to assume that that could be the case.

With multi-label stores Dot almost relieved of a major brand—Nike—and Sportslink closing outlets—the latest, the branch in Tampines One “moving out” possibly in defeat, since AW Lab has opened across the mall, one floor down—it appears that foreign retailers are poised to tempt many of us to part with substantial money by creating senses-awakening spaces in which equally arousing merchandise take their spot. My journey through trending sneakers’ happy hunting grounds did not include the French store Decathlon, Hong Kong mega-retailer Peddar on Scott’s sneaker section, and Robinsons at Heeren’s strong sports department. Within a week, I visited the three stores below and sensed what many sneakers fans have already experience: the kick among the kicks.

AW Lab

AW Lab P1.jpg

AW Lab’s genesis is rather complex because it appears to me to be of rather mixed parentage. The store is part of the Bata Group (yes, that flagship store in Peninsula Plaza). Bata itself was born in Czechoslovakia and is now headquartered in Switzerland. AW Lab operates out of Italy as part of Compar S.p.A—a company that offers franchising opportunities for the Bata brand. Still following?

AW Lab debuted in Asia in Suntec City in November last year. And a second store in Tampines One has since opened. To me, it’s the cheeriest of the three foreign brands, with its marketing tagline Play With Style emblazoned in fluorescent clarity across one wall rather on point. My first encounter with AW Lab was three years ago, on Via Torino in Milan, where the store is just a hop from Duomo di Milano. I was hoping to cop a pair of Diadora, but was so overwhelmed by the selection of Nikes that I succumbed to the latter. At the Suntec City opening, I was feeling a little nostalgic.

Being the smallest store(s) among the three, AW Lab is less able to give a sense of constant newness (yes, pre-requisite in this business even when you are barely a year old) since there is a cap to what can be done in the limited space. Still, they are able to downplay that drawback by giving prominence to trending sneakers such as the Adidas Falcon. Its product highlights are often IG-ready, crucial to the ready-to-shoot shoppers.

Foot Locker

Foot Locker P1

The newest entrant, Foot Locker, is from the US, but according to a staffer at their first store on our shores (sited at Century Square), this is part of Foot Locker Europe’s expansion to (SE) Asia. Much of the exclusive merchandise are, therefore, sourced from their Euro-distributors. Foot Locker is so prominent in Europe that sometimes. it’s on the same street as AW Lab. The Foot Locker I remember from my visits to New York and San Francisco many years back was a chain store that was more neigbourhood shop than sneakerhead headquarters. To be sure, the store’s flagship in New York’s Herald Square is massive: close to 10,000 square feet of what may be considered sneaker porn.

So I was delighted when I visited Foot Locker three days after they opened here to see a handsome store that is the least congested among the newcomers. So well spaced it is that shopping here is truly a comfortable affair, even on usually crowded weekends, even when there are baby strollers around. Just as appealing (and thoughtful) is the adequate bench seating and the generous room around it that makes the trying on of shoes (or the taking of a shoe-fie) painless.

There’s even a wall full of Nikes, not surprising considering that in the US, it is reported that the Swoosh constitutes “70 percent of their total products”, no doubt a delight to fans of the Air Max or Air Force One. But Foot Locker is careful to balance their selection of footwear, adding to the popular Nikes those trending styles from the likes of Puma (RS-O DX Sega!), Fila (Disruptor II!), and, of course, Adidas (Yung 96!), including an impressive selection for women.

JD Sports

JD Sports P1

Born in England, JD Sports in Singapore is, in fact, the first overseas gamble of the UK/Malaysia joint venture JD Sports Fashion Sdn Bhd. There are already close to ten stores in Malaysia after the first opened in Subang Jaya’s Sunway Pyramid in 2016.  We are only now seeing our second after the first opened in Jurong Point in May. Better late than never, I’d say, in accordance to the sentiment of sneakerheads who must always get what they desire.

JD Sports, confidently (some say cockily) calls themself “undisputed” and the “King of Sneakers”, both powerful claims that have placed them in good stead. Now that they have bought the American chain Finish Line, JD Sports is set on world domination. But not so long ago, the store that is now touted as UK’s number one sports retailer was not as eye-catching as it is today. When I visited London way before Brexit, JD Sports didn’t look significantly different from their rival Sports Direct—both sort of warehouse-style businesses that reminded me of now-defunct The Sports Authority (except in Japan where it still exists and is known as Sports Authority).

Now that they’re the King, they have shed their earlier, somewhat grassroots-turned-chav image for something that befits a global retailer. At their massive, tourist magnet of a store on London’s Oxford Street, JD Sports is mega and bright. On the first floor where all the sneakers that matter beckon, it’s such a well-stocked and dazzling expanse that The Strip in Las Vegas would be proud to have them, but up on the second level, it reminded me of the JD Sports of yore: messy and bewildering.

In fact, the Singapore flagship in ION Orchard is a coruscating example of retail design that heightens the shopping experience. It draws you from across the atrium and from the upper floors. Inside, it is packed with merchandise, but not in an overwhelming way. This is a veritable candy store for sneaker fans. And all the unmissable shoes that your friends told you they saw here—startling number of Air Maxes, for example—play a welcome role right in front. Based on the number of people I’ve seen in ION Orchard with the striking yellow plastic bag, JD Sport is, at least for now, a must-stop.

Photos: Galerie Gombak