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Revisiting Singapore's beloved department store brands: Metro, Tangs, Robinsons and OG

Published on Mar 6, 2014 6:31 PM

Home-grown department stores seem to be getting a second wind recently. 

Metro this week announced that it will be taking over the 130,000 sq ft space at The Centrepoint after Robinsons' lease ends in May. We look at the local department store brands that are brushing up on their retail acts in the competitive Orchard Road shopping belt.

1. Metro
Founded in 1957 by Mr Ong Tjoe Kim as a 250 sq m store in High Street. It opened its first Orchard Road store at Liat Towers in 1965. The company grew to three stores and was listed on the stock exchange in 1973.

In its heyday in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the department store was the purveyor of posh European brands such as Cartier, Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent. The store appealed to the increasingly affluent, English-educated middle-class demographic who preferred Metro's Western bias compared to more homey chains such as Emporium.

Its Christmas campaigns, accompanied by a catchy jingle in the television ads, were a huge success. Metro Toyland, located at Supreme House at Penang Road where Park Mall now stands, was a hot shopping destination in the 1970s and early 1980s. The building also hosted the popular Silver Spoon Coffee House, a restaurant which served Western food.

Although the company introduced brands such as Toys 'R' Us, Piaget and Burberry to Singapore and was a great supporter of local designers and brands, the retail scene changed in the 1990s with the advent of the big malls and the popularity of boutique shopping. And Metro declined in popularity with Singapore shoppers. Currently it has one flagship store at Paragon Shopping Centre and three suburban outlets.

But the announcement of its new outlet at The Centrepoint seems to signal that the brand might be back with a bang.

2. Tangs

One of the oldest home-grown department stores, Tangs boasts an iconic building at a prime location in Orchard Road and a founding story that has become local myth. Named after founder Tang Choon Keng, who got his start peddling laces and embroidery door to door, the store began life in River Valley Road in 1932.

It now stands on the corner of Orchard and Scotts roads, on a plot of land Mr Tang bought in 1958. Like its competitor Metro, Tangs targeted the affluent English-educated Singapore middle class.

It was famous for the longest time as the store that closed on Sundays as Mr Tang was a staunch Christian.

The company has weathered changes in the retail scene. In the 1990s when Metro faded from the scene, Tangs Studio with its hip and fashion-forward mix of local and foreign designer labels as well as its wide range of shoe brands burnished the Tangs brand as a destination store for discerning yuppies.

The company experienced a rockier time in the 1990s and early noughties, when owners and brothers Tang Wee Sung and Tang Wee Kit tried to take the firm private after a decade of losses. It was delisted in 2009, after 34 years on the stock exchange where its share price hit a high of $5 in the 1980s to a low of 15 cents in 2003.

The company has made two major attempts at revamping its offerings in the new millennium. In 2006, it opened Tangs VivoCity and its flagship store in Orchard Road has slowly been made over in a $45-million revamp.

The buzz is already back at Tangs Orchard basement, where the first Krispy Kreme outlet in Singapore drew an overnight queue when it opened on Oct 12 and the Tangs Market offers homey comfort food from Kway Guan Huat Joo Chiat Original Popiah & Kueh Pie Tee to Esplanade Park Satay.

It remains to be seen whether the beauty and fashion offerings will attract the same buzz, but the brand is beloved by Singaporeans and its premiere location give it a headstart in the retail race.

3. Robinsons

Robinsons is the oldest home-grown brand in this line-up, founded in 1858 by Englishman Philip Robinson. As befitting its roots, the shop was regarded in its early years as serving a mainly expatriate audience.

Originally located in Raffles Place, the store has a colourful history. Its outlet at Raffles Chambers was bombed by the Japanese in 1941 but opened for business the next day in typical stiff upper-lipped British fashion. The building was famously demolished by fire in 1972.

In the pre- and post-war years, Robinsons was where expatriates, as well as well-heeled locals, would go for their cheeses, hams and turkeys.

While young Singaporeans associate Robinsons with the Centrepoint outlet, older Singaporeans remember when it was the anchor tenant at Specialists Shopping Centre, where it moved to after the Raffles Place fire.

The image of the department store was tarnished in the early noughties by its regular warehouse sales which gave the once haughty and upscale department store the shabby air of a bargain basement.

The sales policies were abolished by former chief executive John Cheston when he came on board in 2005. He also spent $7 million to revamp the Centrepoint store. The tactics evidently worked as the retail operations was sold for $600 million to the UAE-based Al-Futtaim Group.

Robinsons opened a super trendy new $40-million store at The Heeren Shops in November. With 380 new brands, dominated by fashion-forward labels, scattered through a stylish new interior, the high-end vibe is very different from the auntie haunt image of the old Robinsons at Centrepoint.

4. OG 

While OG might be the most unglamorous of the Singaporean shopping siblings, it is quite possibly the hardiest one of them all.
The company started life as Ocean Garments, a factory founded by China-born Tay Tee Peng in 1962. He had owned and operated a shirt factory in Indonesia for 25 years before he came to Singapore. He sold his clothes in two OG stores, located in Coleman Street and High Street.

His first big department store was in People's Park in 1970. There was an OG Elite outlet at Plaza Singapura which lasted from the mid-1970s to 1997. Currently, the company operates three outlets, including the 45,000 sq ft OG Orchard and the 120,000 sq ft Albert Complex store.

Keeping to its roots, OG offers value-for-money clothing, designed and made at its 70,000 sq ft factory in Jalan Bukit Merah. It unabashedly targets the auntie demographic and has been very successful in doing so.

But its stores have also quietly upgraded to keep up with the times. The OG Orchard shop, for example, has a Starbucks cafe, a ramen shop and a steamboat restaurant, while its other two stores also boast local brand restaurants on the premises - Granny's Secret at OG Albert and Westlake Eating House at OG People's Park.

The company is still family-owned, with four of Mr Tay's children actively involved in the operations.