Not Quite A Busy Black Friday

Has the novelty of the American day of discounts waned?

A short line outside Louis Vuitton at ION Orchard

It was too calm to be a Black Friday, but it was the morning of the year’s biggest mark-down event. Yesterday, at around 11am in ION Orchard, the few shoppers seen did not appear to be in a haste to shop. By noon, the mall was still relatively quiet. The only store that was attracting a noticeable stream of shoppers was Sephora. But, on the first floor, where we had expected snaking lines, the entrances clear of willing-to-wait shoppers were a surprise to see. Were people too sloshed at last night’s Thanksgiving dinners to be able to be out this early? There was no “palpable sense of excitement” that The Straits Times Channel would later report.

At the newly opened Dior store (formerly Burberry), there was no line, only a woman making an enquiry. But, when we attempted to enter the store, a saleswoman stopped us and asked if we had “an appointment”. Do we need an appointment to shop at Dior? “The waiting time is about one hour if you have no appointment,” she said. But the store is not packed. We peered into the store to be sure. “We want to be able to offer you a one-to-one.” What is that? “We will assign one staff to you.” We were happy to be unattended. “We can serve you better.” It was clear she would not let us in.

We had better luck at Gucci, next door. Just as we arrived at the entrance, a saleswoman gestured to us to enter. Did we need an appointment to shop? “Oh, no. It is not packed yet. You don’t have to queue.” Why is there no line? How has the announcement of the departure of Alessandro Michele affected to traffic? “Not really. It’s about the same as before.” She accompanied us throughout our brief exploration of the store, even stopping us to draw our attention to a Gucci X Adidas shirt, with an awfully massive joint-logo of the two brands. We thanked her, sure in our mind that when we come back again, it would be when the store is rid entirely of the present crop of merchandise.

No queue at the new Dior store at ION Orchard

Over at Bottega Veneta, we sauntered into the store easily. A saleswoman approached us to ask if she could be of any help. We said we were browsing. She left us alone. There were only two other women in the store. The quiet and the freedom to look at the merchandise unharried lent almost an old-time vibe to the experience (even if it was too brief to be described as one). We could appreciate the lovely details of Matthieu Blazy’s ready-to-wear, and touch them. Our reverie was finally broken when we were looking at a S$1,100 pair of clear (yes, see-through!) Puddle Ankle Boots. “Would you like to try,” a coaxing voice came from across our shoulders. No, thanks. It’s a very hot day. We had no idea what we were saying in response.

Across BV was LV. There was a line to the right of the sole entrance on this floor. After SOTD contributor Mao Shan Wang’s experience at the very same entrance in 2018, we had been wary of this particular LV store and had not visited since. It was after one, post meridiem, and we had not been nourished by lunch and we were not sure that we were able to handle any surliness of service, even when merely window shopping, not that there was much of a window to look at when those in line have mostly blocked it. When we stood at the entrance, to look beyond it, the doorkeeper’s speaking glance, said to us, “do you have an appointment?”

There was no one waiting at Loewe, although a rope secured to a pair of stanchions was stretched across the entrance. We stood in front of it, but caught no one’s attention. About a hundred metres to our right, there was a visible line outside Bacha Coffee. Behind us, the hoarding for Christian Louboutin on the former Moncler store looked uncommunicatively at us. Minutes dragged on. Then, a woman with no purchase in hand walked towards us. A sales staff let loose the rope to let her out. She waved to let us in. Were we hoping to see anything in particular, she asked. We wanted to look around first. “Sure”, she said, and left us to discover on our own. Further in the space called “Casa” (or house in Spanish), another staffer said to let her know if we needed anything. We found a S$850 almost-cubic coin case cute, but was not so sure about the extremely prominent logo on the front.

Sephora at Takashimaya Shopping Centre

Many of these stores made no announcement that they were participating in the Black Friday markdown. No standee was placed up front to entice, nor a discreet little sticker. The girl at Dior did whisper something about a “seasonal special”, but she did not elaborate. Was extreme bargain hunting seen on our faces, even when we had our four-ply mask on? A young guy, emerging from LV asked his shopping companion, “how come no sale?” They walked past the Saint Laurent pop-up in the atrium—it was without customers. A sales staff was loitering outside, like a tout. The relative quiet of this floor did not reflect what Black Fridays have become after the easing of COVID restrictions in 2020. Or, was this a reminder that it was a working day for most?

By two, ION did not look busier than usual. There was still no line outside Gucci. At fifteen to three, we walked to Wisma Atria. The traffic could hardly be described as heavy, the clusters of shoppers scarcely made a crowd. At the underpass to Takashimaya Shopping Centre, there was not quite the usual bottleneck. We breezed through. On the other side, it was not manic as we had thought it would be. Found café inside The Editor’s Market was full, but not the store. We took the escalator up, and was surprised to see a very short line outside Chanel (strangely, the queue did run along the side of the store, but cut diagonally across the entryway of the mall. It was quiet at the newly refurbished Fendi. Opposite, two people were waiting to be let in at Dior. Next door at Celine, staffers were chatting among themselves. Strange it was seeing so little action.

Finally a daunting queue. This was at, again, Sephora, where the long line for those opening their wallets was no deterrent to those determined to make a haul. Black Friday, as it turned out, had touched A Great Street rather unevenly this year. Could it be that, despite an impending GST rise, shoppers were not splurging if they were not buying a refrigerator or a television set? Friends WhatsApped us to announce that it was packed at the Courts Nojima Heeren store. Did we not want to see a crowd, they asked. Or go to Metro, they suggested. We would sit that one out.

Something Is Missing

Rows and rows or cascades after cascades of fairy lights on holiday leave at Christmas Light-Up 2019


Orchard Road Xmas 2019.jpg

By Ray Zhang

After 35 years, perhaps the novelty of the Orchard Road Christmas light-up has worn off. I look forward to it as I would the arrival of noon-day heat or the opening of another bubble tea shop. Still, it is the only Christmas draw that Orchard Road can offer, and even that increasingly borders on the lame. It is not clear what purpose the Light-Up now offers other than obligatory decorating of a street that otherwise would have as much pull as Far East Plaza.

A week before the Light-Up was officially switched on, I was in Orchard Road. Seeing just the lamp post decorations up, I thought perhaps, the work was incomplete. Last night, when I was out to catch the festive lights in their full glory (“A Great Gift”, as this year’s theme will have you believe), I was quite surprised—shocked would have been a better word, but I resist—to see emptiness directly above Orchard Road itself. There was nothing, not even a string of fairy lights. You could see the blackness that was the dark sky clearly. Unobstructed.

This year, for reasons not entirely clear, Orchard Road Business Association (ORBA, ) and its design company opted for a noticeable change: just road-side adornments, mostly lamp-post decorations and scant ornaments dangling from the trees that line both sides of the “great street”. This year’s decoration, however colourful pedestrians think it is, looks half-done.


Orchard Road Xmas 2019 P2

ORBA’s executive director Steven Goh told The Straits Times that “The Christmas street light design is refreshed in a new showcase format with the objective to create a more immersive pedestrian experience designed for visitors who walk along Orchard Road during this festive season.” If, in addition, there were no decorations from the buildings on both sides of the street, I wonder how immersive those one-dimensional “great gifts” up there can be.

As with window displays, street light-ups during this time of the year are notoriously unable to please everybody. I would be the first to admit that I’m not at all easily thrilled, especially when the embellishment and trimming look like they need more work—and lights (even when we’re told that the exact length of LED lights are the same as last year’s, some 60,620m of it)—to complete. A street light-up just has to have lights strung across or along the road. Call me old-fashioned.

I am baffled, too, as to why Mr Goh thought that the “light design is refreshed” when it looks to me a total break from last year’s much-maligned Disney theme-park blandness. The “commercialisation” of Christmas—as new as Santa itself—upset quite a few last year, rather that the light-up’s aesthetic value. Some, for whom Christmas must not move away from tradition, took umbrage at the crassness of Mickey Mouse enjoying Christmas. It was as if Be@rbrick characters were doing the nativity scene.


Orchard Road Xmas 2019 P3

I sometimes wonder if there’s a need for complete design change to our light-up every single year. Would that not result in eco-unfriendly waste? Could we not have recycled past decorations with thematic variations? If we don’t put up new ornaments on the same plastic tree every year in our living room, why should Orchard Road boast a new festive wardrobe every November/December? Some argue that the same light-up every year may be repetitive. But in other cities, where street illumination is festive necessity and tourist draw, recognisable consistency is not necessarily unvaried or uninteresting.

In London’s Oxford Street, light canopies of one colour have been used for many years, yet each time, the light-up seems different as the themes are changed (this year, it has been reported that there will be an upgrade to “LED light curtains”). And, the Oxford Street light-up has not seen a decrease in visitors. Similarly, closer home, the decorations on Tokyo’s Marunouchi Naka-Dori Avenue (just across from Tokyo Station) has remained somewhat identical through the years, yet the queues to get into the stretch with the most dazzling lights in the days leading up to Christmas have not, as I am aware, shortened.

Orchard Road’s aspirational days are, sadly, left behind like the fairy lights in this years Christmas light-up. Its feeble display is a lady of a certain age togged in finery that are no longer fine. Even the website strains to convince us to “revel in the gift of the holidays at this wonderland of light and colour”. Wonderland. No characters or avatars except jolly Santa. This year, Orchard Road is carefully staying clear of controversy.

Photos: Zhao Xiangji

Did The Grinch Steal Our Christmas Windows?

Orchard RoadDespite the Orchard Road light-up, Christmas is not quite discernible

By Ray Zhang

It’s the last Friday before Christmas*. I have taken time off from work to shop. Rather than the last-minute rush that seems to be what I see around me, I have decided to shop for myself… leisurely. That, and to soak in a bit of the festive atmosphere even when I was told to “not expect too much.”

“You’ve been away most Christmases,” my friends tell me as if berating. “This isn’t London. Don’t expect Tokyo either. Not even Bangkok!” To be honest, I am not expecting anything. Neither am I expecting this… Orchard Road retailers and mall operators have given up on Christmas.

Except to make the most money with the least interesting merchandise and virtually non-existing visual merchandising. I am not out looking for a Saks Fifth Avenue Christmas window or Ellen’s set during ‘12 Days of Giveaways’, but the thing is, this year’s Christmas windows are conspicuous by their absence. Orchard Road Business Association (ORBA**) may like you to believe that, with their heavily sponsored light-up this year, the festive season has arrived, but inside the air-conditioned comfort of malls, Christmas is no-season flatness. Retailers, like the Grinch, seem to have hearts “two sizes too small”.

TangsThe shockingly bland entrance of Tangs

Or a year-end budget too tiny to give windows a touch of—forgive the cliché—Yuletide magic. While I do not expect to see Orchard Road as Whoville, it is disconcerting to me that for most of the shops, stores, and malls, it is let’s-do-the-minimum-for-Christmas-this-year. Or, nothing at all. Could it be because there is no more Best Dressed Building Award*** that has been part of the Orchard Road Christmas Light-Up?

Once, we could always count on Tangs Department Store for more than a little festive cheer. Being a business proudly owned by Christians, it was unsurprising that Christmastime was when a huge portion of the marketing budget went into making their storefront and their interiors experientially stunning to bring in the crowds. But when I stepped off the escalator from the underground that connected me to this side of Orchard Road today, I was really rather shocked. Except for a box plonked in the middle of the entrance way that touted the offerings of their trim shop, the Tangs entrance was as bare as Santa’s shiny pate.

For many years since Tangs opened at Tang Plaza in 1982, the department store once known as C K Tang had been one of the most stylishly dressed during the year-end holiday season. One thing always impressed me: Tangs never had to resort to traditional Christmas motifs and mascots to decorate their store. Led by one of the best visual merchandising designers of the ’80s and ’90s, Ng Weng Sang (known professionally as Weng), Tangs, in the heydays of Orchard Road, was one of the very few retail stores willing to consider an equatorial Christmas, even intermittently employing Peranakan patterns and batiks.

bottega VenetaThe simple but striking pair of reindeer in the Bottega Veneta window

The result was always something that felt authentic even if it may be disingenuous to say so since Christmas, if identified by Santa and fir, and such, is largely a Western import or the subject of songs never written in this part of the world. Yet, Tangs was never deterred, and their Christmas aesthetic was always so unusual and yet familiar that other stores look to them with envy, or so I was told. But that Tangs was no more, particularly after they renovated their store in 2012 and basically forwent windows for a see-through into the ground floor, or space that can bring in what the industry refers to as “extra revenue streams” by renting parts of the frontage for advertising use. The long stretches of window, once festively glorious, now consigned to our memory.

Back at ION Orchard, thought to be the swankiest mall along the 2.2 kilometres of Orchard Road, once considered to have some measure of international standing, the Christmas cheer is a mere hum. This year, the mall—jointly owned by CapitaLand and Hong Kong-based Sun Hung Kai Properties (believed to be “the second most valuable real estate company in the world”)—tell us that is here “Where Christmas Truly Sparkles”. Frankly, I don’t see where the sparkles are (perhaps my astigmatism is blurring them from me). ION Orchard, for the most part, look like it always does: spanking sterile swank.

Even the outside, traditionally an expanse to draw selfie-mad shoppers, the decor/diorama is less grand than, say, last year. Sure, there’s the Ferris wheel in place of a towering Christmas tree, but this is not the site of a Christmas fair. Conspicuously sponsored by Cartier—even the seats are oversized versions of the luxury retailer’s jewellery boxes, the Ferris wheel gives the mall front of ION Orchard a decidedly playground vibe, yet one can’t ride the Ferris wheel, just as one can’t partake in the smörgåsbord that’s part of Dolce & Gabbana’s recycled window display, a stone’s throw away.

19-01-02-10-51-01-227_deco.jpgThe discreet decorations that are rather hidden in ION Orchard 

Inside, it was—as the office catchphrase goes—per normal. I am thinking: If the mall is not going to splurge on plastic Christmas trees and such, surely its tenants would do their part. Right in the middle of the atrium, two pop-ups—Bvlgari and Valentino—were set up. Both, nary a bauble in sight. In the windows of the other stores, it is anti-Christmas tinsel-free. That’s not counting Louis Vuitton’s trees, which could be transplanted from some enchanted forest, and decorated by Naiise.

Most festive at ION Orchard are the little troughs/planters that discreetly dot the mall, so discreet, in fact, that I almost miss them if I did not sit down on a bench near the escalator on level two to pen my thoughts for this blog post. These compositions of an imagine Christmastime in the woods, bauble-strewn and backdropped by poinsettias, are, I suppose, like secret gardens—when you stumble upon them, they rather make your day.

While looking at the only semblance of a Christmas window in ION Orchard—belonging to Bottega Veneta, I see a man near the entrance and strikes a conversation with him. As it turns out, he is from Bangkok and he is here with this wife, who is looking at a bag inside. “We came here to soak up the atmosphere,” he tells me. Do you like the atmosphere, I ask. “Not much atmosphere this year.” Why do you think that? “Maybe they are on a tight budget. Not so grand. Bangkok is not bad, you know. You should see IconSiam.”

FendiFendi has taken the maximum logo look for their clothes in recent seasons, but for Christmas, their windows are bare

I do not get to see IconSiam, of course, but I do get to see the rest of Orchard Road. The festive-free shops in ION Orchard are, as it turns out, not the exception. Luxury brands are as likely as fast fashion labels (H&M is particularly sad-looking) to go the without-Christmas-decor route. Inside Gucci at Paragon, it was business as usual and last-minute grab fest, sans festive decor. Even Paragon itself is a shadow of its usual Christmastime crowd-pleasing glory. Opposite, at Ngee Ann City, they are happy to just let the sole—this time not-sponsored—tree in the main atrium stand for the season’s high, for the rest of the mall.  Even the Santa’s nightcaps above glum faces at Gong Cha in the basement level are more festive! This bare minimum decorative approach stretches all the way to Raffles City, which, like other CapitaLand malls, has welcome the Grinch with open arms.

I suspect retailers and mall owners can’t be bothered because they are happy to let ORBA do the work. But cash-strapped ORBA is looking to Disney to sprinkle the festive dust, which has, unsurprisingly, upset the National Council of Churches of Singapore—more interested in getting people to go worshiping than shopping. As it is, shopping anywhere on Orchard Road is no fun. Minus the Yuletide decoration, retailers are minimising what is increasingly recognised as a key ingredient to drawing the spending crowd: experience.

Outside 313@Orchard, I saw a bored teen of about eighteen, unburden by even a single shopping bag, persuading his mother to go home. “回家啦,回家. (hui jia la, hui jia),”  he said, then, in English, added, “Nothing to see here.” The Grinch won. Even the Sugar Plum Fairy is of no match. And I am not hoping for a pas des deux between those two!

*A note on usage: Christmas here denotes Christmastime—the festive season rather than specifically the Christian holiday. ** Inexplicably, the ORBA website has been down for more than a week. *** As such, we can’t confirm if the annual Best-Dressed Building competition is on this year

Photos: Chin Boh Kay

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

When A Store Caves

Robinsons The HeerenThe change of name to reflect the building in which Robinsons resides rather than the street on which it stands

At first, there was the departure of MD Franz Kraatz. Then there was talk among suppliers and brand owners that modifications were afoot. Very quickly unfashionable labels such as Goldlion took up prime space in the men’s department. There was also ex-staff members’ eager confirmation that the store was giving up its attempt at fashion leadership. And then the name change of the Orchard store (Robinsons The Heeren, effective on 1 September). Finally, the report in yesterday’s ST: “Steering changes at Robinsons.”

You don’t need a modest article in The Straits Times to confirm that Robinsons is stepping out of a dress it deems does not fit. A walk in the Orchard Road flagship last month to check out the fall merchandise quickly revealed a store putting on a new outfit, even if not a particularly trendy one. A keen eye is not required to notice the gradual omissions of those things that earlier made it a pleasurable shopping destination. Did we propose too soon that Robinsons Orchard could be Singapore’s best department store?

Its new managing director Christophe Cann told ST: “I want to bring more common sense to this business.” It would appear that “common” is the operative word, as much as, if not more than, sense: “You have to provide customers with what they want and not what you want to sell to them.” By “customers”, it is not immoderate to assume Mr Cann meant the Fashion Majority. Like the Moral Majority, the Fashion Majority yields more power. What they enjoy and enjoy buying generates the demand for things. This demand is, for so many fashion retailers, essential to sustaining their business. It is not surprising that Robinsons prefers to sell what is already in demand, rather than put out something that will eventually be in demand. That would take too long.

Goldlion shirts at Robinsons The HeerenIn August, Goldlion shirts infiltrated what was once the premium jeans section of the men’s department at Robinsons The Heeren, ousting hip Japanese labels such as Johnbull

Mr Cann was adamant: “I am here to run a profitable retail operation and not to run a museum of fashion.” This commitment to his employer, the United Arab Emirates-based Al-Futtaim Group, is admirable, but what does it say about the fashion retail climate in Singapore, and what will it mean for Orchard Road? Naturally, the health of one’s business is more important than the status of a shopping street, never mind if the latter is losing its sheen as our island’s premier retail hub. Just last Saturday, Orchard Road was closed to traffic to become what ST called in a report last month “a walker’s paradise” (why not a shopper’s paradise, we do not know). And the closure—every first Saturday of the month—will continue till March, next year as a trial program to enliven the place. This move, the Orchard Road Business Association (ORBA) hopes, will “revitalise the area, which is facing stiff competition from new shopping haunts like Marina Bay as well as suburban malls.”

The fact that Orchard Road needs revitalising indicates that it is has lost its vitality. If shopping is central to its appeal, then what gives it vim and vigour is primarily the shops and stores. Orchard Road is saturated with them, yet diversity does not characterise the malls in which they inhabit. Increasingly, the usual suspects—those chain businesses that are not run as “museum of fashion” —dominate, creating a repetitiveness that spreads, not even stealthily, across most of the retail space available. It would take a very busy shopper to miss the uniformity of configuration, shop types, store fascia, and even smell (now that environment fragrance is in vogue)! As Mark Almond sang in Soft Cell’s Monoculture, “Over and over and over, again and again and again. Monoculture. Mediocre.”

The fact that Orchard Road finds it hard to face-off with the competition, such as the less-established Marina Bay area, shows that perhaps it has allowed complacency to dwell on its kerbs for too long. Before The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands emerged to steal an entire street’s thunder, Orchard Road had the concentration of swank. But what ORBA calls “A Great Street” is actually losing its appeal as more malls with no distinguishable shopping ambiance pop up to outdo each other in blandness. Despite the S$40-million upgrade in 2009, Orchard Road has not been able to introduce newness to its roadside and in-mall experiences. In the mean time, out in the HDB heartlands, the burgeoning retail scenes, from east to west, are trying to offer the ineffable “Orchard Road experience”.

Sale bins @ Robinsons The HeerenThese sale bins have been missing in Robinsons The Heeren since the opening until today, the start of their mid-season sale 

But Orchard Road isn’t only facing competition from within our city. Further afield, the shopping belts of Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok are awakening to the discernment and spending power of Singaporean (and other foreign) shoppers, and setting up malls that offer something experientially more exuberant. Bangkok’s Siam Center, for example, continues to attract after a recent refurbishment with its spirited mix of local fashion, international brands, and enjoyable eateries, bolstered by in-centre activities that constantly elevate the mall’s fashion standing without alienating its customers. Its palpable high energy and fun often prompt visitors to rate it as one of the best shopping centres in the world. And Siam Center is 41 years old! Among the Thais—the young especially, it is the go-to shopping destination even when there are other newer, larger, and busier malls.

The Bangkok experience deserves further scrutiny. Thailand’s capital city is not blessed with one uninterrupted shopping street as is the case here in Singapore. The main drag is Rama 1, which connects to Sukhumvit Road via a short Ploenchit Road. Mall shopping (and hopping) for most begins at Mahboonkrong Center at the junction of Rama 1 and Phayathai Road and then continues in one line eastwards to Emporium in Sukhumvit (Soi 24), covering a distance of about seven kilometres. That’s more than three times the length of Orchard Road (Ion Orchard to Plaza Singapura). Between these two points there are about as many shopping centres as there are along Orchard Road (give and take one or two), but since Orchard Road is shorter, the concentration of malls is higher.  Despite the distance (not to mention Bangkok’s punishing heat), shoppers (tourists in particular) do no mind covering the length, visiting mall after mall like bees going from one nectar source to the next, and the next.

Many of these shopping centres are massive, yet one does not sense that in order to fill leasable space, every recognisable brand is thrust in there (it certainly isn’t the case with F&B). While the usual popular labels do convene in mega-malls such as Siam Paragon and Centralworld, the overall picture is one of very dissimilar positioning and branding. The latest to sprout is Central Embassy on Ploenchit Road. Designed by Future Systems—better known for their work on the Selfridges building in Birmingham, it is presently the city’s swankiest, and it looks nothing like its closest competitor Siam Paragon. One distinguishable highlight is Eat Thai, the local cuisine-themed food court in the basement that has been rapidly gaining accolades, both among locals and visitors. Apart from the usual luxury brands, the mall has welcomed lesser-known labels, quirky concept stores, as well as the urban rarity, indie book shops. Central Embassy’s emergence does not add to the multitude of malls in central Bangkok; it raises the quality of mid-town shopping venues, and, in doing so, augments the enjoyment that has come to be associated with retail therapy in this city.

Supplements sections @ Robinsons The HeerenIf this looks familiar it’s because Robinsons has brought back its popular supplements section to The Heeren store, but if it’s not going to look better than Guardian, should it really be here in a flagship?

Orchard Road is, in many respects, similar to other shopping streets in Southeast Asia. Like the rest among our neighbours, it isn’t fashioned after the urban designs of European high streets such as those conceived by Baron Haussmann for the renovation of 19th Century Paris. Even without a boulevard in the scale of Champs Élysées, Orchard Road was able to morph into what it is today, more remarkable considering its lack of the elegance that typifies shopping streets such as Avenue Montaigne in Paris or Bond Street in London, or even Huaihai Lu in Shanghai. Despite its style-deficient appearance, it still looks much more urbane than Bangkok’s Rama 1, which is often choked with hawkers selling anything that can be sold (possibly to preserve Thailand’s residual third-world charm), blighting the facades of the buildings already obscured by the Bangkok Mass Transit System (BTS) tracks and station.

The problem—for a lack of a better word—with Orchard Road is that everything happens on this one short thoroughfare. There’s no veering into arterial streets where surprises can be found, such as those in Aoyama Dori in Tokyo. Even adjacent Scotts Road is, at best, ancillary, a poorer cousin from the next plantation. There are no side lanes, no hidden quadrangles, where rents are less crippling and atmosphere more electric to encourage businesses that are not part of retail conglomerates to set up shop. Nothing non-mainstream is proximate to Orchard Road, where footfall strength is more important for mall operators than shop floor diversity. The lateral competition along Orchard Road concentrates retail activity so intensely on one stretch that anyone who wishes to vend outside of it find himself out of the action.

There are those who think Singapore is too small for street-side retail buzz such as New York’s Soho, and that developers are too preoccupied with vertical construction—the edifice mentality, we call it—to even consider covered open streets such as Osaka’s Shinsaibashi. Packing as much as possible into any given space is such a standard approach to land use that no one is willing to erect properties that can strike a balance of large-scale buildings and open spaces such as Tokyo Midtown or the “villages” of Sanlitun in Beijing. And there are those who simply think we’re not ready or sophisticated enough for any of the above. Some even posit that Singaporeans don’t care about the place they shop in as long as they get to shop.

Robinsons The Heeren facadeRobinsons has the frontage and the floor space to make a difference on Orchard Road, but have chosen to be “more accessible”

Are we really so indiscriminate? If the bland homogeneity of Orchard Road is anything to go by, perhaps we are. The average shopper is concerned only with what’s inside a mall, not how it looks on the outside. The developers know this too; hence, for example, the insipid expanse of a façade that juxtaposes 313@Sommerset, Orchard Gateway, and Orchard Central, as well as the standard offerings behind it. For as long as retailers are happy to be housed in architecturally lame buildings, and let the safe and saleable guide what they sell, there will be more of the same on Orchard Road. If we continue to consume the uninspired, oblivious to the surroundings in which the consumption takes place, we will allow, if not encourage, them to flourish.

Robinsons The Heeren’s going “more accessible” will not give Orchard Road a boost in the uniqueness stake, neither will it enhance the latter’s retail standing. The store, we fear, will just go back to being what it has been before throughout most of the Nineties: an emporium of no exceptional selling position. Perhaps they do not need to assume any pose. Since the advent of e-commerce, we no longer look to department stores as tastemakers. Those who lead trends these days come from a broad base of online stores such as Net-a-Porter, portals such as Farfetch, and content generators/style influencers such as bloggers and e-magazines. Will Robinsons be drowned out by the din that’s blaring from the other shopping universe known as the Internet? Time, as usual, will tell us.

“I want to cater to a larger fashionable crowd,” Robinsons’s Mr Cann told The Straits Times, “not just the younger crowd who has less money, but also to the not-so-old crowd who has more money to spend”. It is odd that Mr Cann should think that the younger set is not financially endowed when it is the young who are not thinking twice before splurging on S$500 KTZ T-shirts and S$1,500 Valentino sneakers. Maybe they do not constitute “a larger fashionable crowd”. Bigger, widespread, pervasive—in the end, they rule.