This Is A Bank

At the new OCBC Wisma Atria branch, deposits, withdrawals and such are not quite the main business of the day

When is a bank not quite a bank? When it’s the OCBC Bank Wisma Atria branch. To be certain, this is still a bank as we know it, with both retail and ‘premier’ banking facilities available, but not one we can immediately take notice. The bank’s financial business is tucked discreetly away, and what would usually be the main banking hall is conspicuously occupied by a bookshop, and rather stunningly too: curvilinear, ceiling-to-floor, pale wood shelving units that afford exceptionally generous browsing space between. This is a delightful surprise, like finding renowned sculptures in the CBD, only here you can spend more time or browse, and in welcomed air-conditioned comfort.

When we came up to the top-most floor of the Wisma Atria shopping centre (popularly referred to as Wisma) via the escalator from the lower levels of this side of the thirty-six-year-old building, the first thing that caught our eye was the light box on the ceiling, with the OCBC logo of a roundel in which a Chinese junk (as it appears to us) is framed. We have not been to this part of Wisma Atria for a long while, and the first thought was that OCBC bank has taken over the one-floor level-four space vacated by a gathering of Japanese food shops, known as Japan Food Town (it closed abruptly in 2020, a month before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic). But as we emerged and looked around us at the invitingly-lit space, we wondered where the bank was hidden.

This end of Wisma Atria, the space across five floors is—in an unusual arrangement—owned by Isetan (as far as we’re aware, it still is. Seventy four percent of the whole building belongs to SGReit). In 2015, the Japanese department store (in Japan, they merged with Mitsukoshi in 2008), stopped operating their retail business at the very spot that, since the opening of Wisma Atria, is very much associated with them, much to the surprise of regular shoppers. The five levels were converted to leasable space, but had been, on a whole, weak in terms of retail concept. While Japan Food Town was a draw for the 16 eateries it brought together, it was not an experiential offering. On other floors, assorted retailers (including pop-ups, such as Workshop Elements) came and went. The only constant is the Sony store. Last August, Isetan looked for investors to purchase the space, but found none. After Japan Food Town shuttered, the fourth floor was hoarded up, until 15 August, when this fascinating OCBC branch started with what staffers described as a “soft opening”. Are things looking up at this almost-forgotten corner of “A Great Street”?

OCBC wanted something more than a banking hall for their newest Orchard Road branch. According to one of the bank’s newly-created “lifestyle ambassadors” Sherman Sim, “the new concept” is to “integrate lifestyle products with those offered by the bank”. In fact, unlike at most banks, the first person on staff to approach us did not ask what they could do for us. Rather, an OCBC’s ebullient lifestyle ambassador enthusiastically introduced the entire space, “adding if you need banking service, we do have that too” (coincidentally, we had an inquiry about an OCBC card that was to be discontinued, and the information was forthcoming). When we met Mr Sim later, he even offered to show us around and explain each corner to us. When we told him that we were off to a lunch appointment, he said cheerfully, “if you come again and have more time, look for me, I’ll guide you around”. We had to remind ourselves we were in a bank.

The approximately 1,860m² mixed-retail space comes with a straightforward name: OCBC Wisma Atria branch. Prominent and probably the bank’s pride is the bookshop, operated by the Malaysian online discount retailer BookXcess (they’re also behind our favourite discounter Big Bad Wolf Books), takes up a considerable section (in area known as the Spiral), and is so stylishly appointed that it is easy to not notice those installations principal to banks—ATM machines. Mr Sim helpfully, and truthfully, told us that if we were to compare the books here with those in Kinokuniya, “Kino has newer books” and quickly added “we have more than 5,000 titles, we think people can find something they like. It’s just that if you want the latest release, we may not have them.” Despite his humble introduction, we did see some fashion tomes (usually not a popular category in book stores here) that beckons a return visit.

The bookshop is just one of the retail offerings within the bank. Incorporated, too, is what could be a home decor/gift shop, featuring table ware and decorative items, including those by such specialist manufacturers as Japan’s Kanazawa-based Hakuichi gold-leaf handicrafts. There are also items by indie retail darlings Scene Shang and Crane Living. For those who prefer a cup of java over printed matter, there is a hipster-ish café by Orange Mocha. In sum, this is probably a bank you’ll visit despite the many recent complains of the pains of visiting one. Visually, it brought to our mind bookstores Tsutaya and Muji Books in Japan and Eslite (誠品) in Taiwan, although on a far smaller scale. While a café fronting a bank is not new (DBS and UOB have tried it too, with indeterminate success), a space where banking seems secondary is.

It is not immediately understood how this retail-cum-banking model works. In many banks, retail banking appears to be waning in its business appeal, so much so that the strategy seems to be to turn customers off, to the extent that they would then minimise visits to the branch. OCBC has shown that it is possible for retail banking to be a pleasant, even enjoyable experience, complete with truly affable frontline staff. When we asked Mr Sim if the handsome fit-out is borne by OCBC or if the retail participants are operating on a sub-lease basis, he was not able to say, suggesting we speak to the person in-charged. The branch is clearly purpose-built, and this, on many fronts, is a bold move by OCBC. It is unlikely that the nearly ninety-year-old bank is diversifying into the brick-and-mortar retailing of consumer products, but what they have conceived easily puts them as a progressive against other banks. Just as UOB, for example, goes retro with its public image, OCBC is looking rather forward.

Photos: Chin Boh Kay