Opens With A Sale

Robinsons Online’s much-awaited launch starts with platform-wide mark down. The opening “sale worth waiting for”?

They were supposed to go online at 3pm this afternoon; they were two minutes early—off to a good start. Robinsons is back, and, not just with merchandise that presumably many desire, but with considerable discounting: “up to 60%”, according to the very large, very prominent, very dark banner image cum headline on its homepage. Everyone loves a bargain, we have often been told, but by re-emerging with a sale, is Robinsons positioning itself as a regular discounter? Or is this what managing director Jordan Prainito calls, in a media release, “compelling value curation strategy”? The business of e-tailing is often said to be price sensitive. Robinsons appears ready to go down with their prices to stay up. Despite a reminder that the store was “established in 1858” at the start, alongside the assurance of fast shipping and 30-day returns, it seems that department store’s storied past has to take a back seat to a “relaunch sale”, the tried strategy to incentivise visitors to the site to make a purchase so that they might become long-term customers, which in turn justifies the cost of the discounts dangled.

Online sales seem omnipresent these days. E-commerce and aggregator platforms are pushing substantial discounts more than ever (the just concluded, or still on-going for some, 6.6 Sale!!!). Competing sales from other online retailers (Zalora’s Big Fashion Sale also begins today!) are making Robinsons’s opening salvo not only less special, but uninteresting too. Click on the Shop Now button on the sale banner and you’re immediately linked to the All Sale page. The first 157 products—skincare/hair/grooming—are reminiscent of the old physical store’s personal care department (known to be among their best-performing), with the same, familiar brands. Exciting. But you would require the patience of a praying mantis to scroll right to the very bottom of this page. Products after products with no particular order will pass you by, namely in the categories of skincare and haircare, toddlers and kids, supplements and healthcare, home and bedding. A total of 2,215 sale products are listed, requiring you to scroll through 554 rows of merchandise, if you are viewing on your PC, or double that, if you are swiping up on your smartphone. It took us the entire length of Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour album (a good 38 minutes of fast index finger movement on the scroll wheel of our mouse) to come the end. As she sang, “god, it’s brutal out here”.

If you are not interested in the discounts and want to discover the merchandise, the e-store is not fully opened. Click on the Women tab on the navigation bar, the menu will drop, offering eight categories. We pick “Women’s International Brand Apparel” and are directed to a page that reads: No products found in this collection. We hit the back button and repeat the earlier action and then we now see the discreet “Coming soon!” text next to all the seven sub-categories—51 in total for the Women department, but only four can be found with merchandise, namely underclothes and hosiery. A source later told us that this is “Phase 1” of the opening and they will be “onboarding in the next few days”. Undeterred, we decide to try Beauty. The product placement here is rather odd. We go directly to the page, bypassing the sub-categories. Beauty opens without an enticing header-visual. We are immediately met with health supplements, the first item Herbs of Gold’s Liver Care 60s! As it turns out, most of the merchandise are found in The Bedshop (no surprise there: Robinsons Online is owned by Canningvale Australia, a leading maker and retailer of bedsheets and towels), and Home and Tech. Fashion shoppers come back later.

The fervent push for retail to go digital is a bummer for the offline romantics among us. Robinsons Online is a reminder that we can no longer feel for the store the way we did, to hold it in the esteem reserved for grand dames. Historic it may be, and an institution it might have been, but Robinson Online is a totally new store, bereft of the sentiments its physical self once stirred. Earlier press advisory described its reincarnation as “a fully digital, state-of-the-art, vertically integrated online department store”, with an emphasis on how easy it is to navigate: just scroll down. The result is a cold screenful that corresponds with the anatomy of a great homepage, but evoke no emotion that would spur positive user experience. Thinking that it might be different on a smartphone, we take to our Galaxy S21 for a (re)visit. Although optimised for the small screen, the site now looks oddly condensed. The strolling gets even more tedious. What’s frankly annoying is the repeated popping up of a window that asks us to subscribe to their ”marketing communications” in exchange for ”$10 off at checkout when you spend $100 or more.” We hope this is a work in progress.

Physical retail appeals to emotions. The proverbial “theatre of retail” that successful stores adopt makes the emotional connection. The rebranded Robinsons at The Heeren in 2013 had that, so much so that we considered it the best department store here at that time. Admittedly, it is difficult—some say impossible—to recreate this relationship online. Many e-tailers think it’s all about merchandise and if you flood your space with products, shoppers will visit. But increasingly, the talk is about building “emotional motivators”, even online. Perhaps Robinsons Online is new and there is, as it appears, the rush to open, but it is dismal that the transition to e-commerce is just that: a digital exercise. Or, has “compelling value curation strategy” overtaken strategic goals that should have also spanned the customer journey? Price is prime? Sure, many of today’s shoppers still go after a good deal, but when it comes to the online environment that encourages them to stay and return, it is still a memorable experience that many desire. We know we do. Robinsons Online might benefit from offering virtual shopping that is experiential rather than merely transactional.

The reality is that people and brands still connect to the Robinsons name. The Straits Times, for example, is curiously fixated with Robinsons, like the many women who can’t forget Robinsons once had a haberdashery and fabric department. Since the announcement of the last two stores’ closure in late October last year, they have run nearly a dozen stories with the name in its headline. No other department store enjoys such exposure, especially posthumously. Two consecutive days prior to today’s rebirth online, a pair of articles about Robinsons were published. Perhaps none want the return of Robinsons—owned by foreigners in succession since 2008—more than ST. Now, the onus is really on Robinsons’s Aussie owners Canningvale Australia to truly elevate one of our beloved brands, and a national newspaper’s, to a first-rate digital entity many more would love to embrace again, rather than mirroring their own home-turf site. We can wait.

Screen grabs: robinsons.com.sg

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