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 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 End Of Robinsons

Long lines outside Robinsons over the weekend, once again, showed that we ardently queue up when retail businesses announce they’re going bust. This was literally The Sale Worth Waiting For

Not long after media announcements in May that Robinsons at Jem would be closed in August, after National Day, rumours abound that their remaining two stores will suffer the same fate. In the industry, that prediction was further strengthened when talk emerged that the owner of The Heeren, Chee Swee Cheng and Co, had invited Parco (Singapore) to see if the latter might be interested in the space, then still occupied by Robinsons. Parco, initially behind Bugis Junction (they sold their stake in 2005) and later the retail manager of The Central at Clarke Quay and PARCO Marina Bay in Millenia Walk (where they introduced the now defunct Parco Next Next), did not, at that time, appear to have expressed interest.

Although it was reported that no one knew of the impending shuttering of Robinsons until the very day of the “official” announcement last Friday, it was already a fate many anticipated will strike. Some retailers in Orchard Road also revealed a day before that they had heard that the store was placed under creditors’ voluntary winding-up. From Saturday, A4 signs on windows and (closed) entrances of the Raffles City store read: “FOR ALL CUSTOMER AND SUPPLIER PLEASE CONTACT…” an email linked to the Australian liquidator’s website was quoted (yes, in full caps). For Singapore’s oldest department store, there was really no hope.

The long queues at both Robinsons stores: at Raffles City (top) and The Heeren (below)

“Shoppers flock to Robinsons outlets after it announced store closures” went The Straits Times headline a day after the shock announcement that Singapore’s oldest department store will close. For good. Social media was buzzing with photos and videos showing the unbelievably long line outside The Heeren that, at some points, stretched all the way to the Apple store. We received these news with some concern. Have we become a nation of closing-down fans? Will potential brands—especially from overseas—see an island-city of willing shoppers only when an outlet announces liquidation procedures? Will we suspend shopping to wait for the next store closure? The thing is, we can get used to this. Reserving retail therapy for the last days of a business is addictive, since today’s economic climate means more closures are anticipated. Are we really becoming like this?

The sight of a long queue sure does intensifies FOMO, as a line—however long—is the visual equivalent of online stores telling you “X people are currently looking at this” so as to quicken the commitment to purchase. You don’t know who these people are, but the thought that any one of them could beat you to it—whatever ‘it’ is, could heighten the anxiety that there are those who are simply ahead of you. According to news reports, The Heeren store limited the number of shoppers to 1,500. Over at Raffles City, the security personnel controlling the sole entry point told those in line that “1,000 people are allowed inside at any one time”. This may explain the long queue outside each store, which only intensified the desperation of onlookers and those receiving updates from friends via WhatsApp and the like.

At The Heeren, a monitor indicating the number of visitors already in the store

Many who rushed down to Robinsons were hoping to buy at deeply discounted prices, but were disappointed that most merchandise they thought were there had vanished. Much of whatever products left were not marked down. Signs above many racks stated clearly that “All shoppers enjoy $20 off with minimum nett spend of $150” or “$30 off with minimum nett spend of $200.” This is consistent with what Robinsons had on the cover image of its Facebook page, which bore the message: “Time for a shopping spree” (what happened to the standard “Everything Must Go”?). Many in the two stores looked at those signs in disbelief. In addition, word went round that those holding Robinsons gift vouchers and cards could only use them if they were to spend twice the value of the voucher or card. Who was really enjoying anything?

That there was considerably reduced merchandise and empty shelves were hardly surprising. The reality is, the minute liquidation was announced, many brands had their merchandise removed from the stores for fear that they may not be able to do so later, or that they would never be paid for whatever would be sold during this sale. At the time The Heeren store opened in 2013, there was talk that Robinsons had boasted an unusually high 60% outright purchase (products bought directly by the store). Through the years, with declining sales and merchandising approach that didn’t work, the consignment-centric model was adopted. Consignees generally place stocks on the selling floor and are paid when the products are sold. One brand manager of a popular accessory label told us that he was down at The Heeren store the day after the liquidation announcement, even before the store opened, “to quickly get everything out.”

Severely empty shelves at both stores: (top) Raffles City and (below) The Heeren

Others were not so lucky. Murmur among suppliers described how some brand owners were told by Robinsons that there would be no moving of merchandising out of the stores. All such clearance had to be approved by the liquidator. Some consignors had not been paid for sales made during the months prior to the closing down announcement, and they fear that, if their goods were not taken away, they might have to incur all unforeseen losses. This could explain the many empty shelves that confronted hopeful shoppers over the weekend. Sunglass Hut, for example, wasn’t going to let their designer eyewear be associated with a store that was in the midst of a somewhat chaotic closing down. As for the rest of the merchandise that belong to Robinsons, no one is sure if they would eventually be marked down. One shopper was heard complaining to his friend on the phone, as he was leaving The Heeren store, empty-handed, that “one bloody denim sacoche was still priced at $519.”

By now, news was spreading that those who had paid in full for mattresses were told that it is not certain they would receive what they had purchased. Complains to the Consumer Association of Singapore (CASE) was swift. Robinsons took to Facebook to announce that these complaints were a “priority issue to be addressed with the mattress suppliers.” This did not assuage any complainant’s anxiety. Many had reached out to the mattress suppliers and the common response they received seemed to be, as one FB user posted on Robinsons’ page, “Supplier called and informed that they will not honour the delivery due to no payment from Robinsons.”

A familiar entrance with the curved glass sliding door shall be no more

How did Robinsons, with 162 years of business behind them, come to this? Did they have to exit their home here in such a disgraceful manner? The way many see it, Robinsons has seized to be a Singaporean brand the way we remember it when Dubai-based Al Futtaim Group bought 88% of the shares of Robinsons & Co in 2008. Although the company did grow the Robinsons brand in the Middle East—in Dubai and Riyadh, there is no emotional connection to the brand or the appreciation of Robinsons’ place in the social, economic, and retail history of our city. To them, losing Robinsons is no love lost. In 2013, Jim McCallum, then CEO of Robinsons Group, told the media leading to the opening of The Heeren store, that in deciding to bid for the department store, “We don’t buy companies to sell them, we buy to keep.” He didn’t say anything about killing them.

Some press reports call Robinsons the “victim of COVID-19”. Others consider it the casualty of the huge consumer shift to online shopping. Why not also take into account that the retail and pricing model that is Robinsons is not tenable in a consumption culture that elevates consistent discounting? Since the Great Singapore Sale (GSS) that, this year, coincided with the 9.9 sales, there was the 10.10 sale and the upcoming 11.11 sale (also known as Singles’ Day sale), all linked to online shopping destinations such as Lazada and Shopee, which are model platforms that national broadcaster Mediacorp enthusiastically supports, and retailers were told to emulate. Or, perish. Continually fed on a steady diet of considerable, if not deep, discounting, shoppers would not be motivated to go to a store such as Robinsons to confront regular offline prices. In time, people would remember Robinsons as a place of no discounts even in their last days. Who, indeed, will miss Robinsons when the store had not been receiving ardent support for years. On the possibility that The Heeren might be a white elephant on Orchard Road, one commentator on the forum page of wrote, “Let those dirty massage palor (sic) take over the Heeren lor. I don’t care.” Perhaps, no one does. Unless there is a closing down sale.

Photos: Chin Boh Kay

Not Looking Back, But Looking Forward

This was posed to us many times at the start of 2019: which new (or newish) brand do we think will be exceptional this year? To us, there may be only one: Ader Error


Adererror in Siam DiscoveryAder Error pop-up in Bangkok’s Siam Discovery in October 2018

We have always resisted making lists. This is no exception. We won’t, therefore, be looking back at the last twelve months of 2018 and tell you what we think was good, or what, regrettably, was not. But of all the new or new-to-market labels that came (and, for some, languished), perhaps one deserves mention, not because of how big they are here since no retailer brought them in, but for their very conspicuous absence.

We think that the Korean streetwear label Ader Error deserves attention even when we have never blogged about them. Although they have not received mention here, you probably have seen their wares in those social media posts that tout the very latest and hottest. Or, seen your fave K-pop stars wearing them. After all, Ader Error is reported to be “”the top choice of K-pop royalty”, such as Jin and V of BTS. They are also know for their Instagram posts, of which they have not one, but three handles, totaling 743k followers, as of now.

adererror x pumaAder Error X Puma at Robinsons at the Heeren

At this point, perhaps we should correct ourselves. It is not entirely true that Ader Error is not retailed here. In November, Robinsons at the Heeren carried the brand’s collaboration with Puma: a tiny, two-style buy of sneakers and slides. That went largely unnoticed, and are still available at Robinsons when elsewhere in the world they have been reported to sell out within days of launch. Could this be indication that we, as retailers and consumers, are slow to trends, as is the common charge? Or, simply uninterested?

While we have read of Ader Error’s meteoric rise and followed them on IG, we have not seen their designs up-close until October last year. One of Bangkok’s more forward stores Siam Discovery—once a shopping centre, now a department store—had put together an Ader Error pop-up, complete with the Korean brand’s own fixtures. It was striking and unmissable, and an opportunity for us to examine the beguiling merchandise up close. Did they live up to the hype?

ader error coatOver-sized double-breasted wool coat: classic tailoring with street cred

Hype, as we all know, is often 80% social media build-up and 20% design finesse— sometimes, for the latter, less. Hype is the engine of consumption. Hype takes us for a ride. It can be either an enjoyable one or a dud that leads to nothing. Ader Error is, without doubt, built on hype, much of it its own making (rather than, say, through third-party or fan hashtags). It is hard not to see three IG pages (excluding website, Facebook, and Twitter) put out by one brand as hype, but the noise—thankfully, not bluster—they create is commensurate to the high grade of the products they sell.

It is encouraging, therefore, to see that Ader Error has quite a healthy percentage of design flair to the equation, more than a healthy quarter, as we see it. Sure, theirs is a path well-trodden: Supreme and its ilk have ambled on with repetition and, sadly, lacklustre offerings that bank quite solely on hype. Ader Error, more than most streetwear brands, conversely use design to fuel the hype, not the other way round.

ader error pop-upAs Ader Error intended, their sleek first pop-up in Southeast Asia

Ader Error was formed in Seoul in 2014. A collective of individuals from different fields, the brand is not led by any specific design director. One Kevin Lee is reported to be the group’s spokesperson. According to Mr Lee, the group got together because they had wanted to do something totally creative. Coming from trades as different as graphics and food, they produced clothing quite unburdened by what a street wear label should be. So steep in method, as well as madness that WWD called the work they do “intellectual street wear”. However, Mr Lee prefers to call it, as he revealed to Highsnobiety, “a culture brand based in fashion”.

What we found especially appealing is the polish of the designs, with the right balance of exclusivity and mass appeal. The pieces look like there are the result of thought (much if it), not afterthought. The retro vibe, like what dominates street wear now, is unmistakable. Yet, it is subtle enough for the brand to call their hark-back “futro”. That, to us, appears to be looking at shapes and designs of the past, but with the eyes unsquintingly gazing at the present. Additionally, you sense that the people behind Ader Error are sharing a private joke, but you aren’t sure what’s funny, except the obvious: on the bottom layer of the fly of a pants, the scribbled “not yet”!

ader error merchMore than just clothing, Ader Error offers a selection of fun accessories 

While Ader Error is touted as a unisex label, it is obvious that their strength is in men’s wear. The clothes are not designed to alienate. By that we mean there’s accessibility factor to the output. Yet, you don’t dismiss them for being too commonplace. A position that will attract otaku types, fashion-leaning gamers, and even the fashion-consuming CFOs. For most, there is appeal—and comfort—in clothes that, well, look like clothes. And smart to boot.

At present, Ader Error releases only two collections a year, and, unsurprisingly, in somewhat small quantities (which possibly bait collectors the way Supreme’s encourage long lines). According to the brand’s Kevin Lee, their sell-through is more than 90 percent per collection, which is not unexpected, considering that they sell in rather small number of stores, of which only one in Seoul is their eponymous outlet, a free-form space that could easily be a karang guni man’s den.

adererror in siam discovery l2From pop-up to permanent space in two months

Apart from garments, Ader Error offers small goods or what are known as “lifestyle items”. These include cups and caddies, key chains and kerchiefs, and everything else that allow you to show those around you that you buy into their “culture”. And people do. Two months or so after their Bangkok pop-up debut in Siam Discovery, they were given a permanent corner in the men’s department on the second floor, next to Club 21. A sales staff told our Thai eyes, Nah Kwamsook, that the brand is doing well (“kai dee mak” or sales is very good), and is especially popular with “fashionable young men.”

With only one store and crackling multiple social-media pages, the brand is doing something so right that British GQ wondered if Ader Error is “the world’s coolest brand”. We don’t quite know yet, but it is rather apparent to us that Ader Error is no mistake.

Photos: Jagkrit Suwanmethanon and Zhao Xiangji

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.