Visited: Vault

Gucci’s all-new, all-dancing e-store may change the way online shops are conceived in the future, but not everyone gets to buy what’s up for grabs

Gucci describes its fresh digital platform Vault as a “new experimental online space”. The website is primary an e-store, but it is also an e-mag. When you arrive at the homepage, there is surprisingly not an immediate call to view the merchandise. No cart symbol could be seen in the top right-hand corner (instead, it reads “Edition #1”). Click the ‘hamburger’ menu icon on the left, and it drops down to reveal a very short list of three items: Join Vault, Current Country (SG isn’t listed), and Language. No shop and items. The main image—not animated—featuring Gucci fashion is not even clickable. Below the photograph, you are told to “Discover More”. But you scroll further down. The site is highly visual and the images are mostly full-bleed, which lend the webpage the feel of a vertically-flowing magazine. And it’s quite a way down to the end: 28 swipe-ups later, in fact.

The experiential component of the space is, therefore, not over-stated. There is considerable content to discover, apart from stuff to buy (we’ll come to that later). What you are entering is a totally Gucci world. If their mostly retro-heavy images are not your cup of kombucha, or are overwhelming, there is a good chance you may not go to the subterranean end. But the website’s content developers are eager to engage you. And Gucci wants to foster “an imaginative relationship that goes beyond the purely transactional”. It is a strategy that will make you stay as long as, if not longer, than you would at Net-A-Porter and the like. Gucci is serious when they say Vault is “a time machine, an archive, a library, a laboratory, and a meeting place”.

That a project associated with Alessandro Michele should facilitate time travel, cast a light on the archival, the librarial, the experimental, and the social (can any online enterprise be without this component?) is unsurprising. Gucci under his watch is all of the above. And Vault is a flashy showcase of how imaginative Mr Michele is or, as the intro to Vault states, how much a reflection of “the Creative Director’s passion for experimentation, showcasing restored and customized archive pieces alongside the creations of emerging designers through a poetic and coherent editorial format.” Restoring? Is that a stab at sustainability? Yes, there is talent discovery too. And designers you would not have heard of elsewhere are given a space in Vault.

Even esoteric music (yep, there is a tune to “discover”), which, according to Gucci, is the “sound of style”. Or, if a more learned description is required, the “captivating delights of autonomous sensory meridian response”, per the brand. What in the world of pussy bows and Kingsnakes is that? Sound engineers call it a “perceptual condition”. There is an example in Vault: a ‘music video’, if you will. A model is seen with a vintage GG Plus bag (presumably “restored”). She squeezes the body to yield crunchy sounds, then she strokes the straps and then taps on the distinctive handle of the Bamboo bag, generating more sounds. A teaspoon is seen grinding the rim of a Gucci coffee cup. A bag buckle snaps. These sounds and others more come together to create a percussive chorus. And there you have music. Or, as Gucci calls it, “sensory overload, where objects can inflame or provoke, placate and subdue”.

Mr Michele is clearly creating a world not yet imagined as a welcome and doable sphere for online retail. But this is not the same as Raf Simons’s History of my World (now inactive, but quite the precursor to Vault). This is far more immersive, even if it borders, in parts, on the pretentious. But do visitors want to go through this much in a site visit that begins with transactions in mind? So what Gucci merchandise are there to buy after you have enjoyed the “sound of style”? Almost nothing. Before you can click on the past-era products temptingly photographed, you will meet the message, “All vintage items are sold out”. There is a top, one unexceptional Aria T-shirt that is a limited edition and a Vault exclusive. If you are open to the products of the new designers Mr Michele has selected (13 of them), then perhaps the credit card you have on standby would be useful. If, however, you are in Asia but outside Japan, all you could do is browse. Vault has shut you out of their merchandise.

Shortly after Vault went online, an SOTD reader wrote to us, rather with a huff: “It’s such a stupid site,” his message read. The vexation is palpable. “You cannot buy if you are not living in those few countries they want to sell to. So few countries for members to select. We can’t buy cos (we are) not among the 20+ countries on the list.” There are, as of now, just 25 countries that Gucci ships to, including Romania! Italist, to compare with a compatriot business, ships to 216 countries. It is understandable why this reader fumed. “Waste of my time to join (as member),” he wrote in conclusion. Apart from writing to us, he also sent a missive to Gucci. And, rightly, there was a reply, which was shared with us by the SOTD reader.

A written reply from Gucci Customer Services

“Thank you for contacting VAULT,“ one client advisor called Hiroko from Customer Services replied (presumably, Gucci had their Tokyo office respond since they are in a time zone closer to ours), addressing the male complainant as “Ms“. She continued: “Unfortunately, Singapore, Hong Kong and China are not eligible for Vault product delivery and cannot meet your needs.“ We suspect Google translate is at work here. “Thank (sic) for your interest in Vault products and we apologize for not meet (sic) your expectations. If you have any questions, please reply to this e-mail or contact VAULT Client Service (sic).”

The mail does not say if things would change or if purchases on Vault can be made by shoppers in Singapore, Hong Kong, and China beyond “currently not”. There is something final about “not eligible”, so too “cannot meet your needs“, since there is no attempt at assuaging this Vault visitor’s disappointment with more positive news. It is unknown if Gucci sees limited shipping as strategic advantage. But if e-commerce market size in Southeast Asia alone is reported to be around USD62 billion now, why is it favourable for Gucci to keep part of its online retail vaulted from the rest of us? Sticking to “beyond the purely transactional”? Rather mind-boggling, isn’t it?

Screen grab: Gucci Vault

Valentino Makes A Statement

And it will drive the anti-vaxxer nuts

Fashion do want to be counted when it comes to making a social/political stand. Valentino, for one, not only knows their position on the divisive issue of COVID-19 vaccination, they are willing to express it, and, concurrently do good. Taking advantage of the cool-after-summer season, they’ve released a black, made-in-Italy, cotton hoodie with the word “Vaccinated” stretched across the chess, above which the unmistakable V-logo is centred. There is nothing to the hoodie really, other than what it might literally say about the wearer. With the vaccinated more appreciated in social circles and welcomed in dine-in-allowed eateries, knowing that they have received the two doses of either the mRNA or viral vector vaccines without turning on their Trace Together app might be a boon to those who’d benefit from the knowledge or be able to complete a professional duty.

Launched on the Valentino website today, the hoodie is shown on the label’s creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli, who looks relaxed in a rattan chair, placed in a garden. According to Valentino’s corporate comms, the designer was “captivated” by an identical hoodie conceived by “the American pop culture sensation Cloney” (a multi-disciplinary collective based in LA, headed by one Duke Christian George III) that he ordered all that was available (five, it is said) and gave them to his friends, among them Lady Gaga, who dutifully wore the V-logoed version and posted a video on Instagram. Clearly Nicki Minaj of the “swollen balls anti-vaxx claim” wasn’t on the receiving end of this messaged top.

Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli proudly promoting his vaccination status

But, apparently, Valentino only told part of the story. According to media reports, Cloney “cloned” Valentino in their hoodies by replacing the V in ‘Vaccinated’ with Valentino’s V and the rest of the letters in the brand’s serif font. Mr Piccioli spotted the item on IG and magnanimously bought them to gift his friends, seeing the potential good that could come out of this hoodie. So rather than sue Cloney, as big brands such as Adidas are wont and eager to, he chose to work with them, pairing the couture brand in his charge with another closer to street that stars such as Justin Beiber and wife Hailey already love so that both can benefit from the resultant social-media exposure and old media support.

Lest you think this is just a commercial, opportunistic exercise, the sale of the hoodie, in fact, benefits places where COVID-19 vaccines have yet made significant impact. “All net profits,” Valentino reveals, “will be donated to UNICEF in favor of the COVAX facility, which ensures equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines by supplying doses to countries in need.” Doing so is also “to highlight the values the Maison stands for”, we are also told. We are not sure how many pieces are allotted to our island, but as of now, they are still available. Those who are keen on a charitable purchase and be in the company of others who share Valentino’s mission, best be quick. They are sold out in Europe.

The Valentino ‘Vaccinated’ hoodie is available on the brand’s website for SGD 1,1901. Photos: Valentino

Naiise To Be Back?

The multi-brand retailer returns. Will the baggage of a troubled past weigh them down?

Designer names used to be enduring. These days, retail brands are the ones that don’t die. Once born, they can’t be rid of; they can’t self-destruct. One of them here is Robinsons, the other is Naiise. Announced on Instagram last night, Naiise’s comeback is a return to their founding format: an e-store. The big reveal struck at nine this evening, their “witching time of night”, to borrow from Shakespeare (it is unclear why the store is launched three hours to midnight rather than during the day). However, unlike the return of Robinsons, there is no fanfare prior, no media walk-through, no build-up. One post on the brand’s Facebook and Instagram pages each appeared yesterday evening, followed by two more—six hours apart—that announced their sudden re-emergence. The second post stated that followers of their social media were missed. A comment followed: “We know it has been a while, but we are coming back online”. At the time of this writing, it garnered 126 likes.

One of the earliest media outlets to report on Naiise’s re-opening is Vulcan Post, an ardent supporter of the brand, then—and now, as well as its founder Dennis Tay. In an editorial, they wrote that “this comeback is not too surprising as the previously-defunct website had the words ‘opening soon’ emblazoned across”. In their social media announcement, Naiise also stated: “We’re gonna continue our mission in championing local creatives, designers and artisans. Come on a journey with us as we inspire creativity and connect communities!” Despite their cheeriness, the new Naiise is aware that the fallout of the past (just this year, in fact) is not quite forgotten, yet. In the final post before the online opening, they wrote/assured: “The new and improved marketplace platform allows sellers to be paid instantly upon every successful order fulfilment.” However, it is not known if those to whom money was owed were all paid.

If this is the Naiise still associated with Dennis Tay, now largely held in disesteem, perhaps the declaration of prompt payment would be taken with a generous pinch of salt. But the confidence is now expressed by a new company. By Naiise’s own reveal hours earlier, seemingly written by a legal advisor, “the WestStar Group has completed its acquisition of Naiise Pte Ltd’s (the “Company’s”) online marketplace (“Online Marketplace”) as well as its accompanying trademarks and social media accounts”. It also quoted the group’s CEO Ong Lay Ann saying, “in line with its mission of inspiring creativity and connecting communities, Naiise aspires to be at the forefront of aggregating a community that has always appreciated local designs.” Mr Ong is the former CEO of Honestbee, an also-embattled company once self-touted as “Asia’s leading online lifestyle concierge and delivery service” that is now described by the media as “insolvent”. One PR manager cheekily said to us, “from the frying pan into the fire!”

The new Naiise homepage

WestStar Group is an 18-year-old Malaysian company with multifarious business activities, namely automotive, aviation, construction, defence, and engineering, according to their corporate communication material. We are not sure if they have been in the lifestyle retail business before the acquisition of Naiise, but Mr Ong told The Straits Times online that he had been “on the lookout for good quality companies that have potential to scale, and this was one of the companies I was interested in”. He did not say how the dent to Naiise’s reputation—slowly nicked by many years of consignor complaints of tardy payment—would impact the stewardship of the company henceforth. Or how he would “scale” his new charge when the former owner too tried to set the stage to enable and support the growth of Naiise, but failed, dramatically. But in the last social media post before the new Naiise went online, the company did say that “the priority will be to built and improve on the Naiise platform to ensure its long-term sustainability and scalability for a wider creative ecosystem”.

When we spoke to a retail marketing manager about Naiise’s present potential, he said he is “keen to see how they’d reinvent themselves”, adding, “Naiise, as a retail concept, is not really damaged, not in the way the name of the founder is. His name may need rehabilitation, but Naiise, through the eyes of consumers, may not. It is still the store to go to when they want to buy products with distinctly local identity, not necessarily of design brilliance”. It is possible that WestStar sees the investment value in the brand recognition—even in Malaysia, where Naiise’s MY IG page, interestingly, still remains, suggesting that the brand may also be brought back there. Hence its potential “scalability”? Conceptually, Naiise was plugging a hole in the market that, in the early years of the brand’s existence (2013 to 2015), saw few place, if any, similar to the “fancy pasar malam”, as one shopper recalled, that it was.

On Naiise’s social media pages, Mr Ong also said that “the creative ecosystem is fragmented and the reintroduction of Naiise marketplace, will allow both consumers and merchants to connect through a dedicated platform”. The new e-shop (and a refreshed logotype that is now in colour) came online on the dot, . Although it looks quite like its past site, it now lacks a certain buzziness of the former, including the snappy, even if hackneyed, copy that was rather unusual for an SG e-shop. On the new homepage, there is the call to “Meet Your Familiar Brands”. We are not able to ascertain if these 20 are those that were sold on the former Naiise platform, but Dennis Tay’s favourite curry puff cushion by local, food-themed, home-ware brand Nom Nom Plush—purportedly one of the best-selling items in the heydays of Naiise—is conspicuously missing. As in its previous incarnation, the e-store’s merchandise mix is predictably a mish-mash of the kitschy and the retro, with Singaporeana the identifiable USP. Now that Naiise is back, every day can be National Day.

Illustration (top): Just So. Screen grab: naiise.com

Torture To Go Through

Is it reasonable to spend an hour hitting keys on your smartphone repeatedly to score a pair of shoes and not be rewarded?

By Ray Zhang

“OOPS…” went the full-cap message. Is that the best Nike can do? I sat at my desk five minutes to ten, ready to hit my virtual keyboard on my smartphone so as to enter the necessary information to buy myself a pair of LDWaffle x Sacai x Fragment kicks, launched today on Nike’s SNKR site at 10am. At the precise moment, I selected my size, and hit “Add To Bag”. I was then linked to a page where all my purchase details were listed. I filled in my credit card info, and hit purchase. As if I was played by a ghost (which wouldn’t surprise me since this is the seventh lunar month!), I was brought back to the previous page. Not yet discouraged, I repeated this procedure another ten times at least, and finally I got to the page (above) that went “OOPS”! I would spend the next hour going between the page that asked for my shoe size and the one that expressed surprise at its own blunder. In the mean time, my fingers and my mind were begging for mercy. Despite the exercise I give my thumbs daily, this was still too much stress to expect of them.

Is it reasonable to ask anyone to spend an hour on the same page, doing the same thing, hitting the same keys, looking at the same numbers, reading the same “OOPS” message only to come up naught each time, and be filled with deep disappointment at how unpleasant the entire procedure was? When I checked the page at around 1pm, the shoes were “sold out”. It’s inconceivable to me that a company as massive and wealthy as Nike would put their customers through what I went through. And I was not the only one. Another 12 of my friends who tried came away empty-handed and frustrated—and cursing. One of them said to me, “It is wicked that the biggest brand in the world, with all the resources at hand, would do this to their customers.” If indeed one of the basic tenets of good service is never to let your customer wait (let’s not even talk about letting them down), why did Nike put so many of us through the torment? And if we’re more likely to remember a bad customer experience than good, why would Nike not make purchasing their shoes online even slightly more pleasant?

This is not my first time in such a maddening situation. For as long as I have been using the SNKR site to score a pair of shoes—okay, mostly the Nike X Sacai collabs—I would want to scream my lungs out. I knew my chances here would be as slim as the OG Waffle sole, so I entered the Club 21 raffle last week to, well, double my chance. But someone later told me I would also be wasting my time as Club 21 would likely avail whatever stocks they have to their top-spenders, and I am not one of them. Undeterred, I submitted my details for the raffle. Up till ten last night, I did not hear from them. No word this morning either, not a simple “thank you” for participating. However, on Instagram Stories earlier (close to midnight, I believe), they posted a photo of the shoes and the message, “All winners for the Nike X Sacai X Fragment raffle have been contacted via email. Congratulations to all and thank you everyone for joining.” Should I feel better?

Screen shot: nike.com

Gone Quietly

Elaine Heng’s digital-native Ilo the Label is shut, just a year after she started it

Click on the New In tab, and “0 products” is shown

It left as discreetly as it arrived. Ilo the Label—influencer Elaine Heng’s rookie hand at fashion retail—has stopped trading. The eponymous website is now only a landing page, with a still banner offering a “10% off when you purchase Tasha Twist Front Top & Tina Mermaid Midi Skirt as a set!” No Tasha or companion Tina is available. Oddly, a video from her last season—“Citrus Summer: 07.07.2020” remains. We noticed this non-activity at least four months ago at the eponymous website, but we thought it was going through some maintenance or renewal exercise. But it seems that isn’t quite the case. At the end of January, Ilo the Label shared on Facebook what was their “third and final Chinese New Year collection”. Their last post on Instagram was a photo of an off-shoulder romper on 7 February. Ms Heng’s last post with the hashtag #lovebyilo was twelves days later. The last of the #happyilogirls to post (also in February) did so to announce that she was selling an Ilo the Label jumpsuit. Since March, we also noticed a rise in viewership on our post of the birth of Ilo the Label, resulting from searches on Ms Heng’s clothing business. Shoppers or the simply-curious could be wondering what happened to the “fashion brand that cares about your feelings”, according to the label’s self-description.

Back in March this year, Elaine Heng (aka Elaine Jasmine or Elaine Ruimin [瑞敏], depending on the stage of the influencer’s digital life) posted on IG a photograph of herself and a rack of three dresses (followed by four more snaps in that one post, showing her work space being cleared out), with an accompanying farewell message: “Bidding goodbye to my first ever office space.” In the rather lengthy post, she also wrote: “Such a bittersweet feeling because there’s been so much memories and emotions experienced in this humble space.” That spot of humility was in Kallang Place, in one Four Star Building, owned by the people behind Four Star Mattress. (Strangely, she thanked the company that renovated her office when she was closing it!). Spaceportal descibes what could be seen from the building as such: “…the stunning view of the Kallang Stadium along Kallang river is spectacular and well appreciated by our tenants, some call it a ‘fireworks view’”.

If Elaine Heng fashioned Ilo the Label after her own cheery personal style, she might not have realised that, some time down the road, the jelak factor would just as happily set in

Launched on 18 March last year after two years of gestation, Ilo the Label was met with less fanfare: no fireworks. Essentially an online brand, the collections were available through their own website shortly before last year’s Circuit Breaker was implemented. They were heavily touted on the brand’s IG pages, as well as on Ms Heng’s own IG account, where she continually posted photos of herself, looking vivacious, in her own label, as well as of her friends wearing the same, such as fellow influencer Melissa Jane Ferosha (何青燕 or He Qingyan). As we understood it, Ms Heng did not design the collections: she had what was described as “a team of designers”. One fashion buyer we spoke to said that the brand did not seem to be “conceived to last. It is really hard to sell very similar things, season after season. How many rompers and jumpsuits do you really need?” If Elaine Heng fashioned Ilo the Label after her own cheery personal style—as it appeared, she might not have considered that, some time down the road, the jelak factor would just as happily set in.

Another victim of the pandemic? It is hard to say. Ilo the Label is available only online—and just that one point of sale. It has no physical store. According to Globaldata figures published last year, Singapore’s online sales were set to hit S$9.5 billion, despite the pandemic. Singstat data showed that by the time we came to last November, we reached “an estimated total retail sales value” of “about $3.6 billion. Of these, online retail sales made up an estimated 14.3%, higher than the 10.5% recorded in October 2020”. It would appear to be relatively encouraging then for those brands who were available online. In that March IG post to announce that she was clearing out of her Kallang Place office, Elaine Heng wrote: “now that the one year (sic) lease has ended, it’s time to move on to a new space & look forward to better things ahead”. That did not sound like Ilo the Label would be totally folded. But just a month later, she posted (also on IG) about “trying to juggle between my new full time job & night grooming course”. Ilo the Label’s bland positioning might have been eternal-blooms-in-solar-radiance but, alas, like many flowers, is monocarpic—bloom, seed, and then die, quite the contrary to their early upbeat belief that “the flower that follows the sun does so even in cloudy days.”

Screen grab: ilothelabel.com

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

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

The Uptick From The Umbrage

One trending word, now happily used and proudly worn

By Bu Shikong

As a nation, we’re hardly ever affected by single words, nor pairs. Ex-Mediacorp stars can start a food business with the curse-turn-oxymoron Sibay Shiok, but no one’s undies are caught in a knot. When former military man, now SPH’s CEO, Ng Yat Chung indignantly brandished “umbrage”—twice!—in response to CNA reporter Chew Huimin’s question, many people are piqued. The uncle’s contempt at the press conference was, for sure, unmistakable. However, it was not just how garang he was that people reacted to, but the word choice (choice word?) as well. This morning, The Sunday Times reported that that one beautiful word very quickly led to a 200,000-plus searches on Google that day: what did Mr Ng really take? What was given? People were burning with curiosity.

In one Coconuts report I read, it was noted that “many Singaporeans have never even heard of the word until it got a mention at the company’s press conference…” With the Speak Good English Movement still running this year’s campaign, Let’s Connect, Let’s Speak Good English, on TV, that is hardly surprising. But the memes and jokes that emerged have somehow diluted the kau-ness of the fury. And the retailers that have been quick to turn this into a money-making opportunity have only made a word expressing no ordinary anger funny. Since yesterday morning, I have been inundated with photos of and links to the availability of T-shirts with ‘umbrage’ emblazoned across the chest, as well as marketing campaigns enjoying the use of what Asiaone called “word of the day”.

It is rather puzzling that the lead time for producing garments, bags, and cups could be this short. Clicking on a Lazada ad on my social media site, I was brought to a page of a selection of merchandise—six different pieces in all. There is a three-product ‘line’ known as “Umbrage Dictionary”, offered by sellers that appear to be in the digital printing business. Things the now-shuttered-for-good Naiise would have gladly taken in. When I looked closely at the images on the website, I could see that the U-word had been superimposed on the images of standard-issue crew-neck tees. This is likely a print-on-order product line, which could explain how they managed to put umbrage out almost as soon as Ng Yat Chung was susceptible enough take it. But I wonder if more umbrage would be taken if he has read how the seller’s lexicographer defined the word that had a nation talking and dissing.

Those who don’t find charm or humour in this meaning of the hot noun may aquire some other at the National Library. I always thought that our flagship public library is staid. Well, it isn’t. A new display to entice you to their books was very recently set up: “Umbrage And Other Words You Should Know”. An orgiastic grouping for those who would relate to titles such as Word Nerd. But if you need to take knowledge-seeking to social media, enter ‘umbrage’ in Facebook search—the result will tell you the word is “popular now”, just as another phrase is: Umbrage Singapore. As it turns out, this is “a group for Singaporeans who want to take umbrage at anything and anyone”, created just a day after Mr Ng’s heated retort. It is understandable why his rebuke has generated so much reactions. It wasn’t just the use of an uncommonly-mouthed word, it was also the near-bullying way that he spoke it, which included the delectable and by-then-obvious admission that he is not a gentleman.

But not everyone thinks the umbrage was unwisely taken. The former journalist Bertha Henson, who, as one online description enthused, covered “Singapore developments for the Singapore Press Holdings stable of newspapers for 26 years”, took a more contrary view. In her blog Bertha Harian (Bertha Daily, a pun on the Malay-language broadsheet Berita Harian or Daily News), Ms Henson wrote in the piece “It…could be… a new beginning for news media here”, shared a day after the incident of the CEO and the journalist, that she “empathised” with Mr Ng, even when she noted that he “lost his cool”. Many who have read her post were certain she was speaking up for her former employer SPH, which wouldn’t be surprising. Ms Henson, now also an author, is a product of The Straits Times and its sibling titles. She knows why—and how—SPH has become what it is today, even correctly acknowledging that “journalism standards… have been declining at a precipitous rate”.

But as an experienced news person, she curiously chose to deprecate a journalist who turned up to do her job, of which asking questions is expected. She opined that “it is a naive reporter, especially from a local media outlet, who asks such questions which can be applied to his or her own employers and editors”, in a clear reference to a competing news organisation. I don’t expect Ms Henson to play the dajie of local journalism, but choosing not to also empathise with someone whose job she once did seems, to me, to be taking the side of a media company she still feels dearly for. If that singling out was not enough, in a Facebook post from yesterday, Ms Henson wrote in defence of those working for her former employer: that it was “pretty insulting to insinuate that SPH journalists were pandering to advertisers and not maintaining their integrity.” Ms Henson was basically saying to the CNA staff, you deserve it. How becoming, I wonder, is that of a news veteran? Was Bertha Henson also insulted or was she, as the T-shirt sold on Lazada suggests, simply dulan?

Product photos: Lazada. Photo illustrations: Just So

History Of His World

Raf Simons has a new, ”curated” website. And we get to see what makes this man ticks

Raf Simons is a designer with a distinct point of view, not to mention, an unmistakable voice. He’s now opened up to his fans, so to speak, and we get to have a peek into his ‘world’—actually, soon, likely universe. His new website, History of My World, is, according to its own description, “distinct from the Raf Simons brand, this new multidisciplinary platform offers a curation of pieces selected by Raf Simons which reflect the designer’s point of view, aesthetic and philosophy.” Those who follow Mr Simons’s career will know that History of My World was the title of the 10th anniversary collection of his eponymous label, shown in 2005. As such, “the website proposes a unique and direct echo of Raf Simons, a personal and intimate window into a thought process, onto a world.”

Launched today, it opens with a trio of photographs that recall the last Raf Simons collection: spring/summer 2021, which includes womenswear. The models are not standing. They are all on the ground: one seated and huddled like the Little Match Girl, one asleep like a vagrant albeit a fashionable one, and the last, body tilted back and supported by both hands—a pose that suggests waiting during a fitting. All three, apart from wearing Raf Simons, also have with them the new Raf Simons-designed blankets. These, as we shall soon see, are not those one might use in place of the duvet. That Raf Simons would put blanket out to sell is as expected as Prada moving bathmats. Yet, they are here, not one, but 45 of them.

As you can imagine, these are no ordinary blankets, and not quilts made by a bevy of grandmothers needing something to do during lockdown (no disrespect to Lee Suet Fern’s favourite craft). These wool, handmade-in-Antwerp blankets, with edges left raw, are an extension of Mr Simons’s predilection for applying scrapbooking montages on his clothes. These include photos that appear to be picked from school yearbooks and other memorabilia, such as pins. They don’t come cheap: the least expensive is priced at €1,650. And the dearest is €2,200. As we write this, 17 of them are sold out. It is not certain if there are only one of each available, but at these prices, they would reasonably be limited in quantity. And it is unlikely that anyone would take these blankets to go to bed with. They’d be used as an outer, draped over the body like a cape. Or—don’t be surprised—hung on walls, like tapestries.

Apart from the blankets, there are three products released so far. There are “apothecary candles” that come in sets of four (€450), all shaped like those brown bottles that you might find in an old dispensary. Made in Belgium, these candles are unscented. Two sets (there are six)—one the colour of rhodonite and the other, the shade of jade—are sold out. Then there are the books. Three of them, all pricey: Isolated Heroes (€950), Raf Simons: Redux (the commemorative book that went with the 10th anniversary of the brand, €950), and the cheapest tome, Woe Onto Those (€450). Style of My World appears to be in the early stages of development. Presently, there’s not much content, and there are too few products. But it appears destined to be an online stop for those looking for unique, Raf Simons-curated gifts. High prices? We don’t think these shoppers care.

Screen grabs: historyofmyworld.com

12.12: Expected!

They would not end the year without a sale that is named after the same numbers for the day and the month. Again

Before Cyber Monday could come to an end, we’re being readied for the 12.12 sale. This floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall, screaming red/orange Shopee poster was seen yesterday afternoon at Orchard Road MRT Station. While we wouldn’t call this wall art, it is massive. Could it be installed to overshadow the 15-year-old Cyber Monday? Or, to extend a monthly sale event that had started in September, the month of the Mid-Autumn Festival? The specific sale date of 12.12 has no precedent, but it looks to be Shopee’s retail event of the month, conceived and marketed to beat the year-end and post-Christmas sales before they can happen.

This could be Shopee’s final sale of 2020, but we aren’t counting on it. With the vexatious and trying Gurmit Singh as Phua Chu Kang (still) helming their mass-appeal ads (to differentiate themselves from Lazada?) or in marketing parlance, “hyperlocal”, is it possible there is more life to this event, predictably based on the day similarly numbered as the month? The last episode of the eight-season sitcom Phua Chu Kang aired on 11 February 2007, more than a decade ago. Yet, the titular character is still so alive in our collective consciousness that Shopee believes he can move merchandise as well and rapidly as the most-followed influencer. Cringe not—“don’t play play”!

But Shopee isn’t the first to tempt the sale-hungry with 12.12. Two days earlier, in the midst of the Black Friday madness—online and offline, the usually atas Sony (they don’t keep pace with the sale seasons) floated a flashing ad that appeared on our social media feeds. It, too, used the same marketing device, playing up that date, leaving no uncertainty as to who they’re targeting. This upcoming event is, in fact, part of Sony Days 2020 Year-End Promotion, the on-going discounting that began last month. It does’t appear to be a separate sale event, with more irresistible buys or unexpected giveaways. Same face different mask.

After spotting the unmissable Shopee MRT ad, we started noticing Zalora’s own 12.12 online shout-out. They call their own version the “Most Awaited Sale of the Year”. Really?! Is it possible that despite markdowns across so many shopping portals since September’s 9.9 (wait, wasn’t there an 8.8 for National Day too?), we’re still awaiting the “sale of the year”? Have we been duped? Had those other monthly sales—even Lazada’s Big Brands Sale or Shopee’s touted as “mega”—not been big at all? Who remembers? And what is the likelihood that 12.12 would be better than 9.9, 10.10, or 11.11? If 12.12 turns out to be nothing but hype, perhaps we would wait (again) for the arrival of the New Year’s Day sale or—no prizes—1.1?

Photos: Chin Boh Kay

Spill Not From Santa’s Sleigh

You know for certain that times have changed when outside mailboxes, they are delivering more parcels than letters

This isn’t Christmas morning. Yet. It’s a gloomy, humid, drizzle-speckled noon. The mailman has not arrived, but the delivery people have. And they come bearing what could be Santa’s early bounty. The orders are scattered all over the void deck, as if Mr Clause’s elves have been busy, but not tidy. Big and small, tall and stout, thick and thin, they are there, all more massive than any mailbox could hold. They look to be the same community of packages, delivered in the paper uniform of brown/white envelopes/boxes. What we see are arrivals for an entire block of flats. Is that not a lot of shopping delivered in a moment? And Black Friday has only just arrived, barely 12 hours ago.

Perhaps we have been e-commerce disbelievers, the die-hard brick-and-mortar shoppers for too long. Seeing this pasar malam spread, it’s hard to dispute that our shopping habits have changed, and that we’re the goons still going to stores and touching things, and interacting with increasingly indifferent service staff, who must think we are from a distant, backward star. The rest of the populace are no longer going out to buy what they want and bringing the items home themselves. They are shopping via their smartphones, and having their purchases delivered to their front door. And it isn’t just the odd lazy consumer ensconced at home. It appears to be a whole community, an entire people doing their shopping online. One of the most primal of human behaviours—and needs—has really succumbed to digital conversion. Like cash.

Retailers, too, are pressured to go online. Adopt the platform or perish. The threat is very real, not virtual. A distributor and retailer of a popular shoe brand told us that the potential of online sales cannot be ignored. “Before 11/11, we were doing less than 10% of online sales,” she said. “Now, we’re doing more than 35%!” One sales assistant at a clothing store, said to us that “unless we have a sale, traffic is very slow. People may come in, but only to check the prices. They end up buying online.” Government ministers have warned too. Reacting to the impending closure of Robinsons, manpower minister Josephine Teo told the media that “it does signal very strongly that our industries are going to continue to have to transform.” There was no mention in the trite statement of how Robinsons has slipped in store positioning or merchandise mix. Whatever it is, rejig—go online. Keep the deliverymen busy.

Photo: Chin Boh Kay

The Crazy 1s

Is 11.11 really the biggest sale of the year?

By Truss Tan

Who’d thought that innocuous quadruple one, split in the middle by a period, can be such a big deal, and date. Yes, the symmetrical numbers are appealing, lined up in a neat row, like rubber trees in a plantation. But people don’t know them as “ones”. These are not simply a repetition of the lowest cardinal number, deemed lucky in numerology. As K-actor Lee Min Ho (now with more than 20 million followers on Facebook and Instagram) said in the Lazada ad, “eleven eleven” (I did not, at first, understand what he uttered). Or as they say in China, “shuang shiyi (双十一, or double eleven)”, the massive, 24-hour retail event that is so huge, a tally room is set up to track the sales and the millions made, by the second!

Like so many shopping phenomena, these days, much of them are emerging from China. Originally known as Single’s Day (光棍节, guang gun jie), 11.11 has gone beyond the celebration of singlehood and not be ashamed of going without a romantic partner to become a gargantuan and unfettered consumerist indulgence—so massive in scale, it’s often acknowledged as the largest online and offline shopping festival in the world! And Americans thought Black Friday is huge. Last year, in China alone, they chalked up a record-breaking (again) USD38 billion in sales! If that is not staggering, I don’t know what is. As I write this, I have not been fed this year’s numbers, expected to break records again since spending is predicted to be high, considering people have accrued a lot from not travelling overseas.

Lee Min Ho for Lazada. Photo: Lazada

As the popular telling goes, in 1993, four unattached, unnamed dudes from Nanjing University (南京大学), probably bored to death, was wondering how to mitigate the “monotony” of not having a romantic mate. An idea came to these guang guns—“bare sticks”, the slang word Netizen used for single men. They thought it would be a good time to organise fun activities (nothing to do with shopping) to occupy similarly single campus mates, and they did, which apparently became popular among the co-ed population of the school. Phallic symbolism aside, 11.11 was also meant to be a stand to show that men do not need romance to validate their masculinity. It was, therefore, also known as “anti-Valentine’s Day”.

But no good idea can escape the grip of some greedy entrepreneurs, especially those in tech, sitting behind their laptops, watching the world, all agog for action. In 2009, Alibaba, through the manic site Taobao, create the 11.11 that we know today. Who cares about the singles now or the increasing number of them, left on the shelf, when you can, instead, see the item(s) you have been lusting after fly off the shelf. In fact, 11.11 is now a veritable cultural event, with celebrity attendance. In 2018, Mariah Carey kicked-started the festival with a performance backed by the Cirque de Soleil. Last year, Taylor Swift plugged the buying frenzy with a splashy performance. In the past years, we, too, have caught up. As Alibaba has a sizeable investment in Lazada, 11.11 has gripped the imagination and aroused the appetites of shoppers here.

Club 21 sleek landing page. Screen grab: sg.club21global.com

I am not easily afflicted by any shopping fever. In the past years, 11.11 came and went, and I have not been disadvantaged by it. But when Club 21, this year, persistently appear on my social media accounts with their beckoning, I was seduced into experiencing 11.11, at least once. Now, atas Club 21 was never known to play by the typical sale-schedule rule book. In the past, they would not even participate in the now significantly less great Great Singapore Sale (which was “forced” to go online due to the pandemic). Yet, here they were, notifying me on FB and IG incessantly that there were, at first, two more days to go before 11.11 (shown in bold, patterned type), and then, there was a day more. The urgency it created and the possibility that FOMO may strike finally aroused my curiosity about Eleven Eleven.

The Club 21 e-shop is still one of the most unfriendly to navigate despite a supposed remake last year. They are, to be sure, not Qoo10; they are a lot more classy, for a lack of a better expression. But they are not what you would call engaging (the buzz word in e-commerce these 11.11-aware days) or experiential. A journalist friend had texted me yesterday to ask if “get your favourite items for the price of one” (according to the Club 21 ads) meant “two items for 50%”. The answer is not immediately available on the Club 21 homepage (I assume I’d have to “see ‘promotions’ for T&C”, which, despite the pointer symbol appearing when I hover over the line, wasn’t clickable).

Anyway, I was not really here to spend (at least not at twenty past midnight); I wanted to see how our island’s premier multi-label store is adapting to 11.11, or adopting it. Regrettably, it was a totally anti-climatic session. Once you click on ‘shop now’ on the main page, it’ll bring you to the products page. No fanfare. A click on any item did not immediately bring me to the merchandise. It took an unusually lengthy 11.25 seconds. In fact, my entire 30-minute browsing was characterised by very annoying lag. And especially curious was items listed under the ‘Sale’ tab: they were not discounted! And when I clicked on the back arrow, the page hanged!

Singaporean actors Wang Weiliang (王伟良) and Gurmit Singh, peddle for Shopee

Might it be better at Lazada, heavily advertise on TV this past week, featuring the hard-to-comprehend Lee Min Ho? The sheer number of items offered by Lazada, on the homepage alone, often makes me nervous. Where do I begin? And there are those coupons preceding the listing of products. I saw an inordinate amounts of coffee machines, kitchen storage, and electric fans! I tried a search: fashion. The first item that appeared was a “2020 Autumn Clothing New Style Hong Kong Flavor Chic Versitile (sic) Fashion Vintage Hong Kong Flavor qian kai cha(?) Backless Strapped Dress Women Fashion”. Thankfully, there was the picture. But, was I in the market for clothes to wear to a nightclub when they are allowed to open? At $8.80 (not marked as an 11.11 sale item), it was cheaper than a McDonald’s Breakfast Deluxe Extra Value Meal.

While Lazada took the more stylish—no less popular—choice of Lee Min Ho, kitted in a pink suit, for their 11.11 communications, Shopee adopted a more grassroots approach, selecting Singaporean actors, Wang Weiliang (王伟良), as himself, and Gurmit Singh as Phua Chu Kang to helm the selling. I’ll keep my feelings about Mr Phua as a salesman to myself for now. Clearly, Shopee is geared for the mass market. And those who must buy at a discount or what is perceived to be cheap. The homepage, however south you scroll, was slapped with discount coupons after discounts coupons after discounts coupons. I finally saw ‘Key Highlights’ after what seemed like the time I would need to pee. Still, there were no product so irresistible I would go weak in the knees (or knuckles—I was scrolling with my fingers) for. By now, my eyes were so fatigued I mistook a Military “Lensatic” Compass for a compact! It was really time to go to bed. In the morning, I’ll try Tekka Online Market; I heard they were doing 11.11 too.

Illustration (top) by Just So