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