Is Black Better?

Once, Black Friday was invariably described as the sale of the year. In the wake of the pandemic, it now seems to be beckoning from the shadows

How quickly we arrive at a once-a-year Friday inauspiciously called ‘black’. It would be amusing to go into how the Friday after the US Thanksgiving holiday turned into this shade of raven, but it has such a convoluted origins story and multiple retellings that reading them won’t leave you with enough time for this essentially one-day sale. If sales make the world go round, Black Friday purportedly puts you on a dizzy spin. Bargains, we’re told, are to be had in so many stores that missing out won’t only encourage fear, it’d strike terror.

Black Friday predates the colour-neutral 9/9, 10/10, and 11/11. Unlike these Internet-native sale events, Black Friday started largely in a physical space. In the good old days, people in America, after giving thanks, would rush to their favourite store to buy outrageously marked-down goods. Dispensing with manners (Ps and Qs? Forget them!) and, some say, civility, they would be the first to get into the store, elbow their way to the bargains, and, simultaneously, break jaws and noses (okay, that’s an exaggeration, but scuffles did break out). These days, anything likely to break is the Internet.

Standees and window stickers beckon at many stores in case you didn’t already know that Black Friday has arrived

With the pandemic, we assume the response to Black Friday in person would be tamer this year. How wrong we were. The minute we emerged from Orchard MRT station, we knew we would be surging into a swarm. And we did. So packed it was in the narrow passage that’s the conduit between ION Orchard and the underpass to Tangs that both MRT staff and social distancing ambassadors were needed to direct the heedless crowd. No one seemed concerned with the tight traffic. You’d think that 2020 is the year of new social habits, but you’d be mistaken. This was dazzlingly pre-new normal.

Entering malls these days are preceded with the usual SafeEntry scans and temperature checks, but at the ION Orchard entrance outside the MRT station entry/exit, it was a journey to the centre of the earth. You are basically going round the same oblong area four times before you can enter the mall proper. The first thing that caught our eye once we were free from the snaking chain is the line to our right at Sephora (the longest sighted here), which basically stretched the entire shop front of the cosmetic retailer. In ION Orchard, it appeared that the action was subterranean. The bustle was alive below level one. Above that, it was barely a weekend hum. Oddly, it was ghostly quiet outside Louis Vuitton and Dior.

The entrance to the latest expansion of the Uniqlo ION store

The real draw, as it turned out, was the opening of Uniqlo ION, the final of a triumvirate of large stores that make up Uniqlo Town, all situated on Orchard Road. But, while the store entrances were flanked with sprays of balloons, suggesting some kind of celebratory mood, there was no line waiting to get in. Uniqlo ION now includes one floor of the old Topshop, with the rear of the space connected to the right side of the existing store’s women’s department. In total, it doesn’t appear to be as large as their Global Flagship in Orchard Central, but those who miss shopping in Tokyo, would find the latest Uniqlo somewhat familiar (especially the new UT section) and, truth be told, comforting. We asked a sales guy if there was any Black Friday sale. He replied happily, “No, but we have many many opening specials,” and proceeded to show us the good buys, underscoring how attractive the prices were.

Across the street at Tangs, before you could join the staggering queue, you’d be met at the entrance with a huge poster announcing, in bold type, that they “are temporarily closed”. The reason? “Maximum Occupancy Limit Reached”. That did not stop people from joining the lengthening line. A staff at the door explained that inside, “it’s full” even when it was clear from what could be seen through the massive glass doors that it was not. Full, like so many other descriptions in fashion and retail, in the wake of the pandemic, needs re-definition. Yet, few were willing to give the queue a miss. Or, appearing to succumb to the misery of waiting. We have never seen Tangs enjoying such a fervid reception. A young man wondered very loudly to his just-as-puzzled female companion, as they emerge from the underpass in front of the store, “Huh, don’t tell me Tangs oso closing down!”

Tangs had to make an unexpected announcement in the late afternoon

Lines like these are surprising as we thought people would prefer to get online than get in line. It showed us that despite the still-real threat that is COVID-19, bargain hunters are ever willing to brave the undaunted crowd to go to where the low prices supposedly were. Tangs was rather the exception among department stores. The response to Metro’s exhortation-as-temptation—“Why settle for less when you can have the best?”—was just as hyper-enthusiastic, but the line was less crazy. Many were seduced by the “up to 90% off” (“for the best”?) attention grabber. Unlike at Tangs, capacity limits did not seemed to be the concern of Metro’s operations team.

In contrast, it was rather quiet at Isetan Scotts, despite the refurbishment that was revealed not too long ago. Drawing capacity crowd were the two coffee spots on the first floor, now not mostly cosmetics counters. At Takashimaya, it was, at best, borderline busy, and it was comfortable to navigate. The crowd control seemed effective here as there were, in effect, multiple points of entry and exit. Diagonally across the street, the queue returned at Robinsons after a lull, as it was announced that the store would be conducting their last Black Friday sale (Robinsons is, in fact, the first department store to embrace Black Friday in a big way). But with discounts of up to only 70%, their price slash paled next to Metro’s. Inside, it was clear that the store was in the throes of permanent closure. Still, prices were not, as one shopper told us, “temptingly low.”

Foreground: the orderly crowd getting into Takashimaya Department Store

Meanwhile, five kilometres away from Orchard Road, in a quiet, verdant area that was once a military installation, Dover Street Market Singapore was having its own Black Friday event, only it wasn’t so dark. Touted as Fluro Rebellion, it is “a two-part series of limited edition, iconic products created by friends and collaborators of DSM as a colourful counter-action to Black Friday.” The store has an on-going end-of-season sale, and Fluro Rebellion, part one, was clearly—and chromatically—not part of it. In fact nothing in Fluro Rebellion was marked down, yet it was able to draw an impressive turn out, proving that in retail, competing on price alone is not necessarily the only way to generate sales. We have never seen a line at the cashier at DSMS, but there was one this un-Black Friday. By late evening, most of the merchandise, including all the Stussy items, were sold out, as confirmed by one of the sales staff. Despite an affinity to the colour black, DSMS certainly does not need to depend on it to draw shoppers.

These days, going to a store sounds terribly old-fashioned, even unnecessary. Yet, Black Friday was able to lure the crowd. This despite coming late, after the serial online sale of 9/9, 10/10, 11/11, linked to shopping platforms such as Shopee and Lazada, both heavily advertised on old media, the television. It’s surprising, therefore, that sale fatigue has not set in. Can anyone grow weary of sales? You might be okey-dokey in September, but would you be still raring to go in November? We don’t know. As it has always been, the things we really wanted did not go on sale. Nor were they marked down sufficiently to be tempting, or to constitute what the pros at such matters call “good value”. Black Friday, we were told, is better for big-ticket items. Is S$1,000 for a plain but warped Balenciaga shirt not big enough a ticket? As life ebbs away, often rather furtively, we’ll soon forget that Balenciaga shirt. Or, maybe we should wait for Cyber Monday?

Photos: Zhao Xiangji. Illustration: Just So

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