The End Of Robinsons

Long lines outside Robinsons over the weekend, once again, showed that we ardently queue up when retail businesses announce they’re going bust. This was literally The Sale Worth Waiting For

Not long after media announcements in May that Robinsons at Jem would be closed in August, after National Day, rumours abound that their remaining two stores will suffer the same fate. In the industry, that prediction was further strengthened when talk emerged that the owner of The Heeren, Chee Swee Cheng and Co, had invited Parco (Singapore) to see if the latter might be interested in the space, then still occupied by Robinsons. Parco, initially behind Bugis Junction (they sold their stake in 2005) and later the retail manager of The Central at Clarke Quay and PARCO Marina Bay in Millenia Walk (where they introduced the now defunct Parco Next Next), did not, at that time, appear to have expressed interest.

Although it was reported that no one knew of the impending shuttering of Robinsons until the very day of the “official” announcement last Friday, it was already a fate many anticipated will strike. Some retailers in Orchard Road also revealed a day before that they had heard that the store was placed under creditors’ voluntary winding-up. From Saturday, A4 signs on windows and (closed) entrances of the Raffles City store read: “FOR ALL CUSTOMER AND SUPPLIER PLEASE CONTACT…” an email linked to the Australian liquidator’s website was quoted (yes, in full caps). For Singapore’s oldest department store, there was really no hope.

The long queues at both Robinsons stores: at Raffles City (top) and The Heeren (below)

“Shoppers flock to Robinsons outlets after it announced store closures” went The Straits Times headline a day after the shock announcement that Singapore’s oldest department store will close. For good. Social media was buzzing with photos and videos showing the unbelievably long line outside The Heeren that, at some points, stretched all the way to the Apple store. We received these news with some concern. Have we become a nation of closing-down fans? Will potential brands—especially from overseas—see an island-city of willing shoppers only when an outlet announces liquidation procedures? Will we suspend shopping to wait for the next store closure? The thing is, we can get used to this. Reserving retail therapy for the last days of a business is addictive, since today’s economic climate means more closures are anticipated. Are we really becoming like this?

The sight of a long queue sure does intensifies FOMO, as a line—however long—is the visual equivalent of online stores telling you “X people are currently looking at this” so as to quicken the commitment to purchase. You don’t know who these people are, but the thought that any one of them could beat you to it—whatever ‘it’ is, could heighten the anxiety that there are those who are simply ahead of you. According to news reports, The Heeren store limited the number of shoppers to 1,500. Over at Raffles City, the security personnel controlling the sole entry point told those in line that “1,000 people are allowed inside at any one time”. This may explain the long queue outside each store, which only intensified the desperation of onlookers and those receiving updates from friends via WhatsApp and the like.

At The Heeren, a monitor indicating the number of visitors already in the store

Many who rushed down to Robinsons were hoping to buy at deeply discounted prices, but were disappointed that most merchandise they thought were there had vanished. Much of whatever products left were not marked down. Signs above many racks stated clearly that “All shoppers enjoy $20 off with minimum nett spend of $150” or “$30 off with minimum nett spend of $200.” This is consistent with what Robinsons had on the cover image of its Facebook page, which bore the message: “Time for a shopping spree” (what happened to the standard “Everything Must Go”?). Many in the two stores looked at those signs in disbelief. In addition, word went round that those holding Robinsons gift vouchers and cards could only use them if they were to spend twice the value of the voucher or card. Who was really enjoying anything?

That there was considerably reduced merchandise and empty shelves were hardly surprising. The reality is, the minute liquidation was announced, many brands had their merchandise removed from the stores for fear that they may not be able to do so later, or that they would never be paid for whatever would be sold during this sale. At the time The Heeren store opened in 2013, there was talk that Robinsons had boasted an unusually high 60% outright purchase (products bought directly by the store). Through the years, with declining sales and merchandising approach that didn’t work, the consignment-centric model was adopted. Consignees generally place stocks on the selling floor and are paid when the products are sold. One brand manager of a popular accessory label told us that he was down at The Heeren store the day after the liquidation announcement, even before the store opened, “to quickly get everything out.”

Severely empty shelves at both stores: (top) Raffles City and (below) The Heeren

Others were not so lucky. Murmur among suppliers described how some brand owners were told by Robinsons that there would be no moving of merchandising out of the stores. All such clearance had to be approved by the liquidator. Some consignors had not been paid for sales made during the months prior to the closing down announcement, and they fear that, if their goods were not taken away, they might have to incur all unforeseen losses. This could explain the many empty shelves that confronted hopeful shoppers over the weekend. Sunglass Hut, for example, wasn’t going to let their designer eyewear be associated with a store that was in the midst of a somewhat chaotic closing down. As for the rest of the merchandise that belong to Robinsons, no one is sure if they would eventually be marked down. One shopper was heard complaining to his friend on the phone, as he was leaving The Heeren store, empty-handed, that “one bloody denim sacoche was still priced at $519.”

By now, news was spreading that those who had paid in full for mattresses were told that it is not certain they would receive what they had purchased. Complains to the Consumer Association of Singapore (CASE) was swift. Robinsons took to Facebook to announce that these complaints were a “priority issue to be addressed with the mattress suppliers.” This did not assuage any complainant’s anxiety. Many had reached out to the mattress suppliers and the common response they received seemed to be, as one FB user posted on Robinsons’ page, “Supplier called and informed that they will not honour the delivery due to no payment from Robinsons.”

A familiar entrance with the curved glass sliding door shall be no more

How did Robinsons, with 162 years of business behind them, come to this? Did they have to exit their home here in such a disgraceful manner? The way many see it, Robinsons has seized to be a Singaporean brand the way we remember it when Dubai-based Al Futtaim Group bought 88% of the shares of Robinsons & Co in 2008. Although the company did grow the Robinsons brand in the Middle East—in Dubai and Riyadh, there is no emotional connection to the brand or the appreciation of Robinsons’ place in the social, economic, and retail history of our city. To them, losing Robinsons is no love lost. In 2013, Jim McCallum, then CEO of Robinsons Group, told the media leading to the opening of The Heeren store, that in deciding to bid for the department store, “We don’t buy companies to sell them, we buy to keep.” He didn’t say anything about killing them.

Some press reports call Robinsons the “victim of COVID-19”. Others consider it the casualty of the huge consumer shift to online shopping. Why not also take into account that the retail and pricing model that is Robinsons is not tenable in a consumption culture that elevates consistent discounting? Since the Great Singapore Sale (GSS) that, this year, coincided with the 9.9 sales, there was the 10.10 sale and the upcoming 11.11 sale (also known as Singles’ Day sale), all linked to online shopping destinations such as Lazada and Shopee, which are model platforms that national broadcaster Mediacorp enthusiastically supports, and retailers were told to emulate. Or, perish. Continually fed on a steady diet of considerable, if not deep, discounting, shoppers would not be motivated to go to a store such as Robinsons to confront regular offline prices. In time, people would remember Robinsons as a place of no discounts even in their last days. Who, indeed, will miss Robinsons when the store had not been receiving ardent support for years. On the possibility that The Heeren might be a white elephant on Orchard Road, one commentator on the forum page of wrote, “Let those dirty massage palor (sic) take over the Heeren lor. I don’t care.” Perhaps, no one does. Unless there is a closing down sale.

Photos: Chin Boh Kay

6 thoughts on “The End Of Robinsons

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