The social distance we’re instructed to maintain in public places is now extended to even within the tiniest stores. A good thing, for sure, but how has this transformed or shaken up the experiential approach to retail?
A quiet and queue-less Louis Vuitton at TSC.
The first thing about going to your favourite malls to shop these days of punishable social-distancing defiance is how you get in. For the many who go by the MRT, entry is not as simple as going past the turnstiles towards the entrance of the mall. That entry point is likely closed, or more precisely, shuttered. You’ll be directed to go via a very specific route, which, contrary to the objective of social distancing, concentrates the usually large number of commuters into narrow passageways. Sometimes, as in exiting Somerset MRT, it’s like meat passing through a sausage casing. Oftentimes, you can feel the breadth of garrulous and piercing office girls in their excited chatter on your bare arms. We sure did.
The ION Orchard side of the Orchard MRT station, for example, is cordoned off. To get to ION Orchard itself, you have to turn right towards the conduit that connects you to the Tangs side of Orchard Road. There is no barricade here. Nor temperature-measuring checkpoint, nor overseas travel declaration. All remains open. In fact, not many malls have set-ups akin to airport arrival gates (except, as far as we’re aware, the Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands). At ION Orchard, at least on the basement levels, the crowd this Friday afternoon looks uncomfortably healthy, with most seemingly unaware that social distancing is now a must: escalators are still closely packed.
One of the entrances at the Shoppes at Marina Bay: the most secure?Barricaded Orchard MRT station
It appears that part of the “enhanced” Social-Distancing Regulations—effective from 23:59 yesterday—requires malls and their tenants to control the number of visitors within. They do this by designating specific entrances for visitor access. At ION Orchard, the passageway between Burberry and (the soon to open) new Valentino store, for example, is shut. At Wisma, no side entrances have access either. It is, more or less, the same at Ngee Ann City. And malls all the way to Plaza Singapura. There is also no more easy-access passage between malls. The connector-underpass that links Wisma Atria and Ngee Ann City is now closed. It’s the same at 313@Somerset and Orchard Central (interestingly, traffic still flows freely between Orchard Central and Orchard Gateway [OC]). Even the Orchard Road-facing ginnel between the two bars entry.
It is not immediately obvious that mall operators and store keepers are actually counting the number of visitors. Physically adding up was only seen at 313@Somerset. We ask the security personnel tasked with the counting what the limit is, he replies joyfully, “Actually, I don’t know. When management asks me to stop (letting people in), I stop.” At Uniqlo’s OC flagship, where they are launching the JW Anderson collaboration, only the main entrance from within the mall is opened, and a member of the staff tells us that they will admit “only one hundred shoppers.” While we are nearing Wisma Atria, we receive a message from a reader that tells us a holding area is erected outside the main entrance of Sun Plaza Mall at Sembawang to prevent a choke point at the entrance. We have not see anything close to this in any of the malls on Orchard Road, but at Wisma Atria, an unfriendly guard is clearly controlling people going in.
One of the rear entrances at ION OrchardEntry to Wisma Atria is controlled
Not many malls have thermal scanners welcoming you. In fact, none we have visited all afternoon conducts temperature checks. Perhaps that task is left to the discretion of tenants. Store entrances are now manned with staff taking the temperature of those who even merely stand at the doorway. At Tiffany & Co in Takashimaya Shopping Centre (TSC), a chirpy customer skip-walks into the duplex boutique—with only one entrance open—and happily allows the door staff to take his temperature and squirt hand sanitiser to both hands. (In contrast, at the Y3 store, it is serve yourself—the hand sanitiser sits atop an incongruent red metal bar stool.) A few doors away, temperature of shoppers too is taken at Chanel, which, interestingly, is the only store in the whole mall with a queue (not even Louis Vuitton across enjoys this physical hype). Inside, it appears to be business as usual. Quilted bags are—it is now clear—pandemic-proof.
Fendi, which just two days ago, was closed due to the unfortunate case of a staff member contracting COVID-19, is open. Unsurprisingly, it is dead quiet, with not a single staff at the entrance eagerly taking shopper temperature or offering assuring hand sanitiser. Neither is there a single shopper. In contrast, the store at ION Orchard, at the time of our visit, is blessed with three—one making a purchase. Fendi needs to let consumers forget, just as many cannot remember to keep their distance, even today, with notices practically everywhere extolling the need to be at least a metre apart from your neighbour, however unbearable the action.
An unsettling quiet pervades in FendiChanel: the busiest store in the whole of Takashimaya Shopping Centre
It feels strange walking in a mall during these heightened times. Unnerving too when armed policemen are visibly doing their rounds. To really apprehend those not in line with the social distancing requirements? Perhaps our venturing out may elicit disapproval among stay-at-homers, but social media is not where we experience what to many is the worse health, social, and economic crisis of living memory. Truth be told, guilt does pass through our body when entering stores that see nil shoppers. With no other browser/purchaser within the gleaming spaces that gleam and gleam, there is a sense that even just looking is illicit, which, in turn, seduces not the impulse to buy. There is no shortage of merchandise, but the products, however, alluring (mostly fleeting), clearly do not have the same pull as toilet paper.
Perhaps in luxury stores, operational necessities and the boredom of staff, with drastically fewer customers to sell to, amplify the disconnect with the merchandise. The mood, as in Fendi, is a certain gloom—a harsh non-activity that seems to elevate the funereal aloofness. Under other times, this may be agreeable; compelling reason to buy, too. But with the present pandemic a social and economic leveler, is snob appeal still attracting desire?
Door-side display? At Y-3, they offer a “gentle reminder to sanitise your hands before entering the store”Reminders are everywhere, even at the entrance of dressing rooms, such as this crudely pasted at Uniqlo
Is it any different at fast fashion stores? At H&M’s flagship on Grange Road, only one of the four glass doors that is the main entrance is left ajar. Behind them, two uniformed lasses, hands folded, mans the sole access. Walk straight in and none of them pays any attention to you. Inside, the store is a pale shadow of its early years. Age seems to have caught up, ironic considering that H&M peddles fashion that appeals to the mostly young, even the pre-pubescent, who are now shopping/browsing with some relish, unconcerned with the distancing that Orchard Road is slowly, reluctantly waking up to. Here, time seems to have stood very still, unstirred by the near-tumult outside that has been described as a pandemic. Maybe, like Chanel handbags, H&M apparel has built-in resistance to the ravages of disease.
It is surprisingly rather quiet at the Uniqlo flagship in Orchard Central, which, this month alone, has launched three collaborations: Marimekko, Anna Sui, and JW Anderson. Yet, the three-storey store is not packing fans in. It’s possible that the crowd control at the one available entrance is deterring even major fans. Like at luxury stores, it is strangely uncomfortable, even during the lunch hour, to be among a handful of shoppers in such an expanse of space. At some point, we are sure there are more mannequins than people. The massive amount of clothes is, for once, overwhelming, which arouses the thought: Do we really need more clothes?
Temperature taking minus the queue at Uniqlo, Orchard CentralTemperature taking and the queue at Uniqlo, ION Orchard
In contrast to the entry-point control of shopper numbers elsewhere, local brands have mostly kept their doors wide, wide open. There are no belt barriers, no greeters, or hand santisers at the now-quiet Love, Bonito. Ditto for quieter still The Editors Market, at the other end of 313@Somerset. Opposite, at the ever-compliant Design Orchard, belt barriers after a large poster gleefully announcing that “You’re in a safe space!”, channels you to a waiting sales staff who hands you a small square card. The number on ours read 1. A quick glance at the store confirms what we think the number means: there are no other customer. Like their compatriot brands, the more upscale In Good Company at ION Orchard, too, has their doors wide ajar. Entry is a breeze—unhindered and un-greeted.
While we are able to just walk into apparel stores, it is not necessarily the same at beauty shops. Back at ION Orchard, Sephora remains, more or less, business as usual—shoppers, as it is, are still admitted. But elsewhere, more is asked from you other than your body temperature. At L’Occitane, a group of women has gathered at the front of the store, which was effectively closed. A staff member is explaining to the irate customers what they have to do. As she is not easily understood, we take to reading a large poster placed to block the already closed door. As stated in the copy, the store can admit “a maximum of 5 people (including staff)”. Entry is only allowed when customers have filled the “contact tracing (sic) E-form”. A QR code is provided. One middle-aged woman is heard uttering in disbelief to herself, “just to buy a body lotion?”
The newly opened Chanel Chance Studio at ION Orchard now faces the challenge of drawing a crowdAt Kiehl’s, customers are served from behind a belt-off store
One floor below, at Chanel’s not-the-usual, pastel-pretty Chance Studio, opened just this month, stanchion and velvet rope tell us from afar that entry is not going to be straight forward. As we approach, a young man cuts into our path and attempts to go right in, but is swiftly halted by the hawk-eyed male staff. He points to a dark sign. The guy reads it, nods in understanding and leaves. We take a closer look. “The well-being of our clients, teams & community,” it begins (and maintaining full-caps throughout), “is our priority”, going on to request the filling up of the said E-form. Now, buying a lipstick or a perfume must be preceded by electronic paper work, which makes picking up a Chanel bag a lot breezier.
Further down, at Kiehl’s, a Band Aid-wide of a store, belt barriers deny customers entry. Shoppers make purchases from in front of the hindrance. There is no more touch and try, just as it is at all cosmetic counters. “How long will all this be in place,” a man loudly asks his female companion on the escalator going up to level one, social distancing disregarded. “How long do you think the virus will be around?” she snaps. Shopping in Orchard Road has long ceased to be enjoyable. Now that at every turn, we need procedures to ensure peace of mind, tedium inevitably ensues. In a quick but vivid moment, we see the rarity of unbridled gratification contrast against the pandemic of serious infection. Retail therapy is no therapy after all.
Update (28 March 2020, 11.30am): According to news reports, the authorities have “urged” people to “defer non-essential trips to the mall”.
Photos: Chin Boh Kay