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.
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”.
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.
If 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.
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.