Is Black Better?

Once, Black Friday was invariably described as the sale of the year. In the wake of the pandemic, it now seems to be beckoning from the shadows

How quickly we arrive at a once-a-year Friday inauspiciously called ‘black’. It would be amusing to go into how the Friday after the US Thanksgiving holiday turned into this shade of raven, but it has such a convoluted origins story and multiple retellings that reading them won’t leave you with enough time for this essentially one-day sale. If sales make the world go round, Black Friday purportedly puts you on a dizzy spin. Bargains, we’re told, are to be had in so many stores that missing out won’t only encourage fear, it’d strike terror.

Black Friday predates the colour-neutral 9/9, 10/10, and 11/11. Unlike these Internet-native sale events, Black Friday started largely in a physical space. In the good old days, people in America, after giving thanks, would rush to their favourite store to buy outrageously marked-down goods. Dispensing with manners (Ps and Qs? Forget them!) and, some say, civility, they would be the first to get into the store, elbow their way to the bargains, and, simultaneously, break jaws and noses (okay, that’s an exaggeration, but scuffles did break out). These days, anything likely to break is the Internet.

Standees and window stickers beckon at many stores in case you didn’t already know that Black Friday has arrived

With the pandemic, we assume the response to Black Friday in person would be tamer this year. How wrong we were. The minute we emerged from Orchard MRT station, we knew we would be surging into a swarm. And we did. So packed it was in the narrow passage that’s the conduit between ION Orchard and the underpass to Tangs that both MRT staff and social distancing ambassadors were needed to direct the heedless crowd. No one seemed concerned with the tight traffic. You’d think that 2020 is the year of new social habits, but you’d be mistaken. This was dazzlingly pre-new normal.

Entering malls these days are preceded with the usual SafeEntry scans and temperature checks, but at the ION Orchard entrance outside the MRT station entry/exit, it was a journey to the centre of the earth. You are basically going round the same oblong area four times before you can enter the mall proper. The first thing that caught our eye once we were free from the snaking chain is the line to our right at Sephora (the longest sighted here), which basically stretched the entire shop front of the cosmetic retailer. In ION Orchard, it appeared that the action was subterranean. The bustle was alive below level one. Above that, it was barely a weekend hum. Oddly, it was ghostly quiet outside Louis Vuitton and Dior.

The entrance to the latest expansion of the Uniqlo ION store

The real draw, as it turned out, was the opening of Uniqlo ION, the final of a triumvirate of large stores that make up Uniqlo Town, all situated on Orchard Road. But, while the store entrances were flanked with sprays of balloons, suggesting some kind of celebratory mood, there was no line waiting to get in. Uniqlo ION now includes one floor of the old Topshop, with the rear of the space connected to the right side of the existing store’s women’s department. In total, it doesn’t appear to be as large as their Global Flagship in Orchard Central, but those who miss shopping in Tokyo, would find the latest Uniqlo somewhat familiar (especially the new UT section) and, truth be told, comforting. We asked a sales guy if there was any Black Friday sale. He replied happily, “No, but we have many many opening specials,” and proceeded to show us the good buys, underscoring how attractive the prices were.

Across the street at Tangs, before you could join the staggering queue, you’d be met at the entrance with a huge poster announcing, in bold type, that they “are temporarily closed”. The reason? “Maximum Occupancy Limit Reached”. That did not stop people from joining the lengthening line. A staff at the door explained that inside, “it’s full” even when it was clear from what could be seen through the massive glass doors that it was not. Full, like so many other descriptions in fashion and retail, in the wake of the pandemic, needs re-definition. Yet, few were willing to give the queue a miss. Or, appearing to succumb to the misery of waiting. We have never seen Tangs enjoying such a fervid reception. A young man wondered very loudly to his just-as-puzzled female companion, as they emerge from the underpass in front of the store, “Huh, don’t tell me Tangs oso closing down!”

Tangs had to make an unexpected announcement in the late afternoon

Lines like these are surprising as we thought people would prefer to get online than get in line. It showed us that despite the still-real threat that is COVID-19, bargain hunters are ever willing to brave the undaunted crowd to go to where the low prices supposedly were. Tangs was rather the exception among department stores. The response to Metro’s exhortation-as-temptation—“Why settle for less when you can have the best?”—was just as hyper-enthusiastic, but the line was less crazy. Many were seduced by the “up to 90% off” (“for the best”?) attention grabber. Unlike at Tangs, capacity limits did not seemed to be the concern of Metro’s operations team.

In contrast, it was rather quiet at Isetan Scotts, despite the refurbishment that was revealed not too long ago. Drawing capacity crowd were the two coffee spots on the first floor, now not mostly cosmetics counters. At Takashimaya, it was, at best, borderline busy, and it was comfortable to navigate. The crowd control seemed effective here as there were, in effect, multiple points of entry and exit. Diagonally across the street, the queue returned at Robinsons after a lull, as it was announced that the store would be conducting their last Black Friday sale (Robinsons is, in fact, the first department store to embrace Black Friday in a big way). But with discounts of up to only 70%, their price slash paled next to Metro’s. Inside, it was clear that the store was in the throes of permanent closure. Still, prices were not, as one shopper told us, “temptingly low.”

Foreground: the orderly crowd getting into Takashimaya Department Store

Meanwhile, five kilometres away from Orchard Road, in a quiet, verdant area that was once a military installation, Dover Street Market Singapore was having its own Black Friday event, only it wasn’t so dark. Touted as Fluro Rebellion, it is “a two-part series of limited edition, iconic products created by friends and collaborators of DSM as a colourful counter-action to Black Friday.” The store has an on-going end-of-season sale, and Fluro Rebellion, part one, was clearly—and chromatically—not part of it. In fact nothing in Fluro Rebellion was marked down, yet it was able to draw an impressive turn out, proving that in retail, competing on price alone is not necessarily the only way to generate sales. We have never seen a line at the cashier at DSMS, but there was one this un-Black Friday. By late evening, most of the merchandise, including all the Stussy items, were sold out, as confirmed by one of the sales staff. Despite an affinity to the colour black, DSMS certainly does not need to depend on it to draw shoppers.

These days, going to a store sounds terribly old-fashioned, even unnecessary. Yet, Black Friday was able to lure the crowd. This despite coming late, after the serial online sale of 9/9, 10/10, 11/11, linked to shopping platforms such as Shopee and Lazada, both heavily advertised on old media, the television. It’s surprising, therefore, that sale fatigue has not set in. Can anyone grow weary of sales? You might be okey-dokey in September, but would you be still raring to go in November? We don’t know. As it has always been, the things we really wanted did not go on sale. Nor were they marked down sufficiently to be tempting, or to constitute what the pros at such matters call “good value”. Black Friday, we were told, is better for big-ticket items. Is S$1,000 for a plain but warped Balenciaga shirt not big enough a ticket? As life ebbs away, often rather furtively, we’ll soon forget that Balenciaga shirt. Or, maybe we should wait for Cyber Monday?

Photos: Zhao Xiangji. Illustration: Just So

Shopping Offline Is Not Quite Dead

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


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

By Mao Shan Wang

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

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

Orchard Road P1Congested Orchard Road at sundown

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

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

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

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

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

Outside YSLThe mad crush outside Yves Saint Laurent beauty store

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

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

Inside RobinsonsIn Robinsons, the line to get to the escalator

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

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

Inside Robinsons P2The congestion inside Robinsons

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

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

Photos: Zhao Xiangji and Chin Boh Kay

Subtle Plaid for Masculine Wrists

Tatteosian braceletNot since Louis Vuitton’s ‘Digit’ bracelet in the house’s signature Damier Graphite canvas, has there really been another more subtle, yet visually engaging bracelet for men. Until now. This double-wrap wrist adornment by the English accessory maker Tatteosian London is a discreet leather cord on which is printed a green-based plaid that is vaguely Scottish (if tartan is too much for you, there are always manlier fabrics such as leather and paracord). The ‘pop’ clasp—in a green brushed metal—snaps together and pulls apart easily so that you can put it on and take it off  yourself without the assistance of the missus. Just the bracelet to pair with those bland fitness bands to give them a much needed visual lift.

Tatteosian plaid leather bracelet, SGD269, is available at the Tatteosian counter, Takashimaya Department Store. Photo: Jim Sim