Robinsons To Be Resurrected

…as an online store on 24 June. It is now owned by the Australian family behind Canningvale sheets

The news was released to the media just after eight this morning. The reactivated landing page was published “late last night”, according to a source. Three weeks ago, just after Phase 2 (Heightened Alert), talk was emerging that Robinsons could come back as an e-tailer. Some brands had been asked if they would like to sell through the new e-commerce site, which was marketed as “tightly curated”, one merchandise manager told us. Some former suppliers to Robinsons thought they were only “conducting a market study”. Six months after the sudden announcement of the total closure of Robinsons in late October last year, the brand is now back, but only with an online presence. Or, as described in the media advisory, “a fully digital, state-of-the-art, vertically integrated online department store.”

The return of Robinsons surprised industry watchers. While it is understandable that an online retail model is viable and right for the present time, it is also rather curious that Robinsons would stage a comeback at all, considering that their abrupt shutting down of their last two stores—in The Heeren and Raffles City—after 162 years of existence (that saw them survive two World War II bombings and a massive fire that razed their Raffles Place flagship in 1972) was not especially graceful or thought to be sympathetic to consignors and customers (particularly those who had paid for mattresses and not received them). But one retail veteran told us, “Robinsons has history behind it. Its name won’t be tainted. Singaporeans are sentimental.”

Robinsons shuttered for good in January. Its return—which the Australian media calls “rescue”—is led by Canningvale Australia, a manufacturer and retailer (online) of sheets and towels, and fabric goods, conceived “to make luxury homewares attainable”, according to the company’s vision statement. Canningvale’s former managing director Jordan Prainito (he now holds the same position at the newly named Robinsons Online) will lead the operations in Singapore. Mr Prainito is a third generation member of the family that founded Canningvale in 1997, when Italian father-and-son refugees from Libya started a terry cloth weaving factory in Perth that emerged to be Australia’s “main towel company”. It is widely reported that Canningvale is “one of the fastest-growing digital retailers in Australia”. According to the press release, the company “evolved from a wholesale supplier into a multi-million-dollar business in just five years”. Business News Australia reported that Mr Prainito led Canningvale Australia’s digital transformation since 2016. During this time, the company’s “e-commerce turnover surged tenfold”.

The Canningvale website. Would Robinsons Online look like this?

Mr Prainito is no stranger to our city. As reported, he did his tertiary education here and knew of Robinsons and the subsequent failure. He told Australian Financial Review, “When we heard the news it had collapsed, we had a chat as a family and I said it’s an amazing brand and an amazing heritage—why don’t we throw our hat in the ring and see what comes of it.” Robinsons was part of the Dubai-based Al Futtaim Group for 13 years. Sometime in the mid-2000s, it was rumoured that Thailand’s Central Retail Corporation (which owns and operates a local department store chain Robinson—without the ‘S’, apart from the more upscale Central) had shown interest in acquiring Robinsons, but dropped the idea because the asking price was too high. The sale to Canningvale—value not disclosed—includes the domain names for Singapore and Malaysia, customer data base, and some 50 product names, presumably former Robinsons house brands. It is not known if those names will be brought back.

Canningvale initially manufactured for bedding company such as Sheridan and fashion labels such as Country Road. They’ve now their own product ranges and are available mainly through the company’s website and select specialty retailers and department stores. Over here, Canningvale sheets and towels are stocked at Tangs and Courts, as well as on e-commerce platforms Amazon and Lazada. Those who were aware that Canningvale were behind Robinsons Online had, in fact, wondered if the e-store would be similar to Canningvale’s own, and if the latter’s merchandise would dominate. Might the emphasis then be on home goods? According to the press release, 200 “specially-curated” brands, including homegrown ones, will be made available. Names have not presently been offered. In addition, Robinsons Online “will present price-sensitive customers with a value oriented, rationalised product offering”. It is not unreasonable to assume that “price-sensitive customers” means bargain hunters. Or is that based on what Jordan Prainito calls “forensic focus on our customers”? Even in the present time of Trace Together, that reveal is oddly discomforting.

Watch this space for our review of Robinsons Online. Photo: file. Photo illustration: SOTD. Screen grab (below): Canningvale

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