Come Right Up, Walk Right Through

There is no more Trace Together entry scans. Go in and out of malls as you please. One big leap towards ‘freedom’?

Doors at malls are all open. There is no more one entry point and one exit. From today, shopping malls do not require visitors to scan in, or scan out. No one will stop you to make sure you do. TraceTogether is over! Life may not have entirely returned to pre-pandemic days, but this is, where going shopping is concerned, as close as it gets. We are not sure if the footfall at malls has increased (possibly too soon to tell), but when we visited the few always with a long line of visitors getting in, we noticed that there were more people than we expected, even for a Tuesday morning. Will the riddance of entry “hassles” of the past two years prompt the return of more shoppers?

Around noon, at the ION Orchard Basement 2 entrance that faces the exit of the MRT station (now back to a two-way flow), the traffic did not look more daunting than usual, as most visitors were able to hurry right into the vast entryway. Not a hint of what crowd-control measures were in place before: The temper-provoking retractable metal barriers that forced visitors to go through an up/down, up/down course before hitting the “checkpoint” were nowhere to be seen. Now, in that considerable expanse, under which a massive video screen of fake foliage and sky projected a cheery day, one felt free, if not freedom. When we asked an MRT staff, what exit that was—so that we could tell the people we were meeting where to wait, she said, “Tell them to stand outside Channel (sic), lah!”

Similarly, at the opposite side, going into Wisma Atria was a breeze. This entrance is not only a way into the mall, it’s also, for many, a conduit to adjoining Takashimaya Shopping Centre—and further. Without restrictions now, the freer access seemed to make the number of entrants look small. Was the entrance this wide? No physical evidence was left here that would remind us of the queues we encountered each time we had to go in. But a small notice on a signage stand, easily missable, was erected next to the busy-looking store Skechers. The text above an illustration of a masked man read, “PLEASE WEAR A FACE MASK AT ALL TIMES WHEN INDOORS”. TraceTogether-free, a lithe little lass in a whisper of a dress floated in, barely masked up. No one was there to ensure she did, properly.

The conspicuous absence of the TraceTogether QR codes and oblong devices on which to tap electronic tokens was met with delight. “At last,” squealed a uniform-clad student when she saw that the coast in front of her at Wisma Atria was clear, and the token in her hand redundant. TraceTogether was not a popular token or app, nor a tracking tool. Many people we spoke to couldn’t wait to be rid of it. Some likened carrying the token to be being strapped with an ankle monitor. Even when it existed as an unobtrusive but battery-zapping app, it found very few fans, except, possibly, the developers at GovTech. TraceTogether may not be required for now, but we are—no matter how easy it is now to enter a mall—living in a surveillance society and engaging in a surveillance economy. Peace.

Illustrations: Just So

Shopping Offline Is Not Quite Dead

Phew, there’s life on the streets and in the shops after all


Outside Robinsons on Black FridayThe buzz outside Robinsons at 11pm on Black Friday

By Mao Shan Wang

It’s Cyber Monday, but I’m thinking of Black Friday. I don’t remember the day after Thanksgiving, essentially an American holiday, to matter so much to people here, but as it turned out, it did. I have not seen Orchard Road this packed for close to ten years. It was as if this was the only place that mattered last Friday: people thronged—yes, that’s the word—what Orchard Road Business Association boldly calls “A Great Street”

The day started at about noon for me. I had arranged to meet two friends for lunch at Golden Mile Food Centre for the famed chilli mee. Consistent with our national habit, we went shopping after our taste buds and stomachs were duly satisfied. Orchard Road was our destination. To get there, we succumbed to Grab. The driver, on the instruction of an app on his Samsung Galaxy phone, took the PIE, exited the CTE to get to Cairnhill, but before we could leave the PIE, a bumper-to-bumper jam had formed.

Orchard Road P1Congested Orchard Road at sundown

When we hit Cairnhill, it was clear to us that Orchard Road would be at least another 30 minutes away. We had spent close to an hour in the slow-moving traffic; we were not willing for more. Back in the Kampong Java Tunnel on the CTE, we decided to make a detour, and get off at York Hotel, where, in one of their rentable function rooms on the ground floor, an FJ Benjamin clearance sale of the few brands the public-listed company still distributes was taking place. Unsurprisingly, it was not even a faint shadow of the usually-worth-looking-forward-to Club 21 Bazaar.

We left the York Hotel and walked down Mount Elizabeth to get to Paragon from the Bideford Road side. One of my companions wanted to go to Metro to get some Triumph nipple sticker covers for an Indonesian friend she’ll be seeing in Jakarta some time this week. The minute we walked into Metro from that side entrance, we were wondering if we should leave right away. The crowd was not only unbelievable for a Metro store, it was manic. Unwilling to come back again, my friend decided to make the purchase that she had come for. The ensuing line was a 25-minute queue to the harried cashier. After that, we left Paragon in a flash.

Orchard Road P1The crowd that won’t thin even close to midnight

We were finally on Orchard Road. This crowd, on the street (and in the malls), I had not seen before—not in a very long while. This was Sunday afternoon times three, a Chingay horde, charged up, all moving with a self-satisfying purpose. Not to be slowed down, we turned right for ION Orchard by way of Lucky Plaza, diagonally above us the annual light-up that, this year, the National Council of Churches of Singapore found, regrettably for the rest of us, “disappointing”. Once inside the mall where Louis Vuitton and compatriot brands beckoned, but queuing, as we later saw, preceded entry, the frenzy really picked up. I sensed this would be wading in a sea of humanity. I wasn’t wrong.

My friends wanted to go to Sephora. As we approached, we could make out a queue. When we were close enough to smell the mashed-up perfume permanently scenting the store’s air, we could see that the line was way too long to consider joining. Inside, it looked like shoppers had come for free stuff (it was, in fact, a 15% off store-wide)! Forget it: we confirmed by telepathy. We walked on and saw another queue. This time, it was outside of the unlikely beauty shop of Yves Saint Laurent, glamour for now cast aside. Women were waiting patiently for something impossible to see. There was a bottleneck at the foot of the escalator next to this crowd. We turned back. As we past the Chanel beauty specialist store, I heard a woman say to her shopping companion, “This is ridiculous. Can’t pick a lipstick without someone’s arm in my way!”

Outside YSLThe mad crush outside Yves Saint Laurent beauty store

I have always thought that Black Friday was more an online affair. Sure, we have all heard and read about the mad crush—scuffle too—in American stores just past midnight on Black Friday itself, but I consider that an American retail tradition or what their media call “the American sport of deal hunting” (or what ours call kiasuism), not a seasonal madness we’d put ourselves through. But increasingly (actually, evident only in these past two years), retailers, offering no pleasurable shopping experience, started adopting ideas from the West and North Asia (China’s “double-one” [or Single’s Day] shopping festival on the 11th of November and Japan’s fukubukuro [福袋 or lucky bag] offered during after-the-new-year sales). Based on what I saw, online shopping may be going through a one-day lull. The ominous-sounding Black Friday looked like it would be here to stay. If only GSS—now languishing—is just as exciting.

To avoid the meandering crowd, we stopped for tea (actually soya milk and Chinese fritters) at the ION food court. When we emerged into the multitude again, it was the sunset hour. My friends chose home as the final stop while I opted to join another who would be off work soon. We agreed to meet at Takashimaya as he wanted to buy his mother a Happycall vacuum pot. The home/kitchenware floor was, as expected, packed, with women swarming a sale gondola filled to the brim with Wiltshire bake ware marked down to delight. While shoppers bought as if they had a new kitchen to equip, it was surprisingly not frenzied. It was, in fact, fun thinking I might uncover an attractive and useful gadget that would sit happily alongside my kitchen-top family, but I did not. A saleswoman tried to sell me a Japanese pig figurine to welcome the next Lunar New Year.

Inside RobinsonsIn Robinsons, the line to get to the escalator

By ten, after dinner, I was not satiated. The night before I had watched on TV a CNA news story about the Black Friday sale at Robinsons. Reportedly, shoppers had queued as early as 6am on Thursday morning so as to be among the first to enter when the store re-opens at midnight on Friday. As with last year, Robinsons is the only department store—not counting Mustapha—to welcome shoppers when Black Friday strikes at midnight. The store would stay open for the next 24 hours. This was truly a midnight sale, unlike those similarly marketed events in Bangkok that end, rather than commence, at midnight. Robinsons must be confident of the appeal of their Black Friday sale to think that people would sacrifice sleep for shopping.

That was fussing with my mind. The night would not be complete without finding out what was happening (or had happened) in Robinsons (once suggested by this blog to be SG’s best department store. That was, to be sure, years ago). What was offered that had shoppers appear in droves and leaving, as I later saw, with XL-size, eco-unfriendly plastic bags? After convincing my by-then-tired friend—who fears crowds—to go, we arrived at the front of the store seriously fearing for our sanity and safety if we were to go in.

Inside Robinsons P2The congestion inside Robinsons

Robinsons at Hereen was unbelievable. Less than two hours to closing, there were as many people going in as there were coming out. Once I passed the semi-circular sliding door, I thought for a moment I had set foot in a fire trap. I was not sure if it made sense to go further, but we were already inside, which looked like the place was being looted. There was a line to get to the escalator. Imagine! We snaked our way through the cosmetic counters to get ahead of the crowd. Going up, as it turned out, was easier then going down. Security staff was at hand to control the surging crowd. As we walked around the less congested aisles, it appeared that most of the stuff that was significantly discounted were snapped up. The heat in the store was too high to be bearable, and not conducive to browsing. We decided to go. Miraculously, we were able to leave—without any purchase, I’ll add—intact.

Surprisingly, the crowd and congestion did not irk me one bit. On the contrary, I found the experience—more than six hours of it—highly pleasant. I did not start out with anything to buy and ended the night empty-handed. But there was something satisfying about shopping in physical spaces with merchandise you can touch. That this was a shared experience, not just between my friends and I, but with fellow shoppers, made it more enjoyable. We so infrequently drag ourselves to a destination to shop that what I went through was now uncommon activity, and oddly nostalgic too. Sale-hopping that required everything you would not need if it were conducted on a smartphone meant there are some things and feelings online shopping simply can’t replace. For one day, I rather liked bring to cashier than add to cart.

Photos: Zhao Xiangji and Chin Boh Kay

Two Of A Kind: When Peacocking Fails

Two peacocksLeft: Ion Orchard’s now-pulled Spring Magnificence ad, and right: a Tim Walker photograph

It seems to have taken the industry by surprise, but why should anyone in advertising or retail be astonished at all?

Last week, the website of Australian-own Mumbrella Asia (“Everything under Asia’s Media and Marketing Umbrella”) ran a report that told of a Facebook post by Malaysia-born, Singapore-based freelance fashion stylist CK Koo, who had pointed at an ION Orchard advertisement that bore a striking similarity to a photograph by British lensman Tim Walker. Mr Khoo had remarked, “Sadly, when copying in this industry becomes common.” His post, unexpectedly, has been deleted.

In a subsequent report, Mumbrella alerted its readers that ION Orchard has removed the “image accused of plagiarism”. A check on the ION Orchard’s website truly uncovered no such photo. A Google image search of “ION Orchard Spring Magnificence” still shows a single, full-bleed picture linked to the mall’s site, but a click on the view image tab will bring you to a photograph of a garden setup outside the mall. It looks like a hastily shot and posted photo. A visit to ION Orchard over the weekend found no trace of the snap that has aroused curiosity and earned disapproval, not even half a standee is left standing.

ION Orchard may be quick to hush a potentially noisy response to a faux pas, but the damage is done and noted. We will never know what really transpired during the project brief to the agency, reportedly a local firm called Tofu Design, but some of us in the media won’t go soft on certain “standard practices” that could easily apportion the blame to as much the client as the agency.

Fashion communication is tough to put out to consumers these days. The challenge is to rise above the din already made shrill by social media. For so many marketing heads—themselves no fashion plates, fashion isn’t fashion until it looks like fashion. And that mostly refers to the fashion someone else has already adopted or communicated. As part of the modus operandi, a standard request by many marketing managers supervising an ad campaign is the “references”. By that, they really mean photographs with every element in there that they could deem “fashion enough” to sell their wares.

The agencies’ creative directors—the all-powerful geniuses, but themselves also no fashion plates—pander to the clients’ whims by providing these references, which could be a printout of a photographer’s published work or, more popularly, tear sheets of magazines. With the magazine library a crucial part of the agency, and sites such as Fashion Gone Rogue a click away, references are easy to find, and willingly provided to clients. The unfortunate scenario is one when a client expects the result to not differ from the reference.

The white dress of identical silhouette, the seated pose, the white peacock feathers protecting the model like a Hindu nāga sheltering a deity, the onlooking albino peacock: they point to a definite visual source

It’s not surprising that the ION Orchard ad is based on a reference: here, from one of Tim Walker’s works, distinguished by the dramatic setting that is often confined to a room. The photo first appeared as a spread in W featuring Jennifer Lawrence with all sorts of birds. The similarities of ION Orchard’s picture are too uncanny to be considered a coincidence, even if the agency, in its defence, may claim that it is. The white dress of identical silhouette, the seated pose, the white peacock feathers protecting Ms Lawrence like a Hindu nāga sheltering a deity, the onlooking albino peacock: they point to a definite visual source.

What annoys many creative souls is the poor imitation. This is a mall trying to boost its fashion standing and underscore its fashion leadership, yet its ad depicts fashion that, at best, is a parody. The main focus of the picture is the gown, but it looks like something sponsored by a Tanjong Pagar bridal shop rather than a reflection of the sumptuousness in the Tim Walker photo that is evocative of the couture plumage of Maison Lemarié. Even the pose of the model appears awkward and speaks of an inexperienced mannequin cornered into a shoot beyond her abilities rather than the graceful beauty that she attempts to imitate that hints at the old–world elegance of Truman Capote’s “swans”.

Requesting for a reference is a media industry-wide practice. Even magazine editors are known to demand them so that they’ll know exactly what to expect. “No surprises from the stylist” is the common justification. If references from the same sources are doing the rounds, it could perhaps explain why fashion pages of magazines are looking dismally the same. Of the present crop of young stylists occupying editorial pages with their work, so very few have a distinctive, let alone identifiable style.

Mr Koo, who took a hiatus from fashion to dabble in F&B before returning to styling recently, contributes to publications such as Nuyou. The latest issue, in which a fashion story he styled is featured, comprises five locally shot fashion spreads by three different stylists, but you wouldn’t have guessed that they are the output of a trio of individuals. Three of them are so similar visually (all with blond models glaring at the reader with smokey eyes) that two of the pages (67 and 109) from two different thematic spreads even sport the same Prada jacket. It’s of no help that fashion editors, like creative directors, are not necessarily able to discern the mono-look.

The sameness that afflicts our image-making industry is exacerbated by the smallness of the pool of fashion stylists, many also engaged by creative directors to style shopping mall ads based on the client-approved reference. The trifecta of creative types too shares similar ideas of what makes an image fashionable—usually edgy or over-the-top, mostly a snapshot of a fantasy existence, enhanced by deft Photoshop manipulation. The problem, for a lack of a better word, is that they all like the same things! It is, therefore, unsurprising, for example, that, while Raffles City and ION Orchard are about 3 kilometres apart and appeal to different shoppers, their communication materials seem to share similar aesthetics. Take away the text that identifies the malls, and you’re left with two sets of images with no distinguishable USP.

If only business owners could see the irony of it all. In desperately trying to be different from their competitors, they end up with a product that is a facsimile of the creative output of someone else. Imitation may be a form of flattery, but rarely is it sincere. Let’s not pretend. Whether ION Orchard will consider this a salutary experience, we can certainly hope.

Photos: source