More affordable brands for Robinsons at The Heeren

Christophe Cann. -- ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
Christophe Cann. -- ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

New managing director Christophe Cann is re-introducing more affordable brands at the department store

Just four months into the job, Robinsons' new managing director Christophe Cann has already made some major changes to the department store's swanky flagship at The Heeren.

In the women's shoe department which carries designer labels such as Manolo Blahnik, Red Valentino and Roland Mouret, there is now a larger selection of masstige and orthopaedic shoe brands such as Rockport, Everbest and Aerosoles. Some designer shoe labels have also been dropped.

In the men's department, the number of suits and jackets has been reduced and replaced with a larger selection of shirts from labels such as mass shirt brand Goldlion.

On the beauty floor, a section that used to carry niche hair grooming brands such as Philip B and Tangle Teezer has been replaced with one selling supplements, toiletries and drugstore beauty brands such as Revlon, Maybelline and L'Oreal Paris, which were previously unavailable there.

As the 49-year-old Frenchman says in an exclusive interview with Life!: "I am here to run a profitable retail operation and not to run a museum of fashion."

The changes he has made certainly appear to be an about-turn from what his predecessor, Mr Franz Kraatz, introduced to make over the staid image of the 156-year-old department store.

Mr Kraatz, who left the company in May just seven months after the flagship store's grand opening, had spearheaded a $40-million revamp last year.

The changes targeted a younger crowd, with a more sophisticated shopping environment and new fashion-forward brands such as French hipster label The Kooples and contemporary American menswear brand John Varvatos.

But the move alienated many of Robinsons' regular customers who were used to the more accessible price points and selection of merchandise that the department store had long been known for.

Still, Mr Cann, who officially joined Robinsons in June, insists that his changes are "not a U-turn" to the Robinsons of old.

The former deputy chief executive of French department store Galeries Lafayette in Paris, where he was for 25 years, says: "I want to keep the merchandise refreshing and fashionable, but more accessible in terms of price and style. This is an edgy department store and I want it to remain so. But I want to cater to a larger fashionable crowd, not just the younger crowd who has less money, but also to the not-so-old crowd who has more money to spend. I want Robinsons to be a department store, not a high-end store."

Mr Cann, who helmed the Singapore operations of Galeries Lafayette at Liat Towers from 1994 to 1996 before it closed, adds: "I want to bring more common sense to this business. You have to provide customers with what they want and not what you want to sell to them."

To illustrate this, he gives examples of more changes in the pipeline. Since the former Robinsons at Centrepoint used to be known for its large bedlinen department, The Heeren store's modest bedlinen area will be expanded by at least 20 per cent by the end of the year. The new space will be carved out from unused areas around the existing department.

The women's department will also be reconfigured after Chinese New Year so that masstige labels get more floor space. Mr Cann declines to divulge which brands will be added or dropped as he says discussions are still taking place.

However, he adds that shoppers can expect more bridge lines. For instance, Italian shoe label Pollini's high-end line, where a pair of shoes can cost up to $1,800, will be replaced with the more affordable Studio Pollini collection, where prices are not more than $800.

He also promises that the department store's sales will be as attractive as they were before because Robinsons customers "have memories of the Centrepoint sales and it will bring in more footfall".

He relates how when he arrived here during the Great Singapore Sale in May to conduct market research, he noticed that Robinsons at The Heeren had only 30 bargain bins. By June, he had upped that number to 150.

The father of two says the changes he has made have already yielded results. For example, in the men's department, there was a 50 per cent increase in sales of shirts the week after the changes were made. Figures have been maintained so far, he adds.

Explaining the changes he made there, he says: "Men here wear shirts more often than they do jackets and now, not everything is slim-fit there."

He declines to reveal the store's current earnings but says he intends to increase it by around 20 per cent by the end of next year. An e-commerce site is in the works and there are plans to boost tourist visits by working more closely with tour operators.

He adds that "sales figures didn't really drop" after Robinsons moved out of Centrepoint because the department store managed to retain at least 75 per cent of its customers. The Centrepoint branch closed in May after its lease expired.

As to why Mr Kraatz left the company, he says: "It was a shareholders' decision. When the company's expectations are not met, some things have to change at the end of the day. At the time, the strategy was not meeting the company's expectations, so he left." Robinsons is owned by the United Arab Emirates- based Al-Futtaim group.

What Mr Cann does plan to retain from his predecessor's time is the visual merchandising of the store, which he thinks is "great and well done with the props and different corners", the small vintage corner of designer bags and accessories from brands such as Hermes and Chanel on the second floor as it "makes the store different" and exclusive brands such as The Kooples and Shinola which have strong brand identities.

Last month, he changed the name of the flagship store from Robinsons Orchard to Robinsons The Heeren. "So many people, including taxi drivers, didn't know where Robinsons Orchard was. Now, by calling it Robinsons The Heeren, it is easy for them to find the store."

He also has plans for Robinsons' two other branches. For the department store at Jem, he says the offerings will increasingly cater more to shoppers in their 30s who contribute to most of the sales there and be made up of daily necessities such as household items, toiletries and supplements. The Raffles City store - the chain's top performer - will undergo a major renovation for a better layout and fitting rooms in 2016.

While some netizens have complained about Robinsons' drop in service standards across the board, Mr Cann says he is working on changing the training programme and even the managers of the sales teams where necessary.

"I want our staff to engage more with the customers and provide the right advice as it is not sufficient for them to be just smiling and saying 'Hello'."

Ms Magdalene Yuen, a 51-year-old sales executive who has been a regular Robinsons customer for more than 20 years, is happy about the changes at The Heeren store, especially in the shoe department.

"In the past, many of the shoes there looked so beautiful, but cost more than $1,000 and were not practical. I pick them up to admire, but I will never buy those shoes. They look like they belong on display in an art gallery. Now, I still get to enjoy seeing nice things in the store, but I'm also able to pick up a few pairs that are affordable and practical."

gladysc@sph.com.sg