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Big change for John Little staff as last outlet is shut

Mr Toh, one of John Little's longest-serving staff, now works at the Raffles City branch of Robinsons department store, which is under the same management group. With 35 years of service in John Little, he has many fond memories there, among which ar
Mr Toh, one of John Little's longest-serving staff, now works at the Raffles City branch of Robinsons department store, which is under the same management group. With 35 years of service in John Little, he has many fond memories there, among which are the buzz and energy that came with the sales.ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

Sales veteran recalls old days; half of those who worked at last outlet redeployed within group

Mr Jonathan Toh has seen his workplace shrink from being an old giant in Singapore's retail space to becoming a modern pop-up store.

The last John Little outlet, in Plaza Singapura, that closed on Jan 2 is a far cry from the one the 52-year-old remembers working at, fresh out of secondary school, a lifetime ago.

Mr Toh - one of John Little's longest-serving staff, with 35 years of service - recalled the fond memories in an interview with The Straits Times.

John Little in Plaza Singapura took up the whole of the fourth storey when it opened in 1979. When he joined a few years later, it was popular for its mid-priced merchandise like furniture and curtains, he said.

Mr Toh said he thoroughly enjoyed the sales that were held by the store at its old Specialists' Shopping Centre outlet. He relished the buzz and energy that came with the sales. "It was very busy. Customers would wait outside before we opened, and rush in. But that's what I liked."

John Little, which has a 175-year history in Singapore, may be gone as a department store but will continue to operate through pop-up stores. Of the 33 staff who worked at the Plaza Singapura outlet, about half have been redeployed within the group.

 
 

Other than the Plaza Singapura and Specialists' Shopping Centre outlets, Mr Toh worked at the Marina Square branch until 2015, when it closed. He now works at the Raffles City branch of Robinsons department store, which is under the same group that manages John Little.

Mr Toh finds that customers now are different from those decades ago. "Now, they are more interested in quality than price. They also do a lot of research... and ask many questions," he said.

Another thing that is different now is the amount of service offered by salesmen.

When Mr Toh started out, he was a contractor, electrician and salesman rolled into one. After a customer put a deposit down for an item, he would personally visit the customer's home to take measurements, much like a contractor.

As an employee in the store's home department, he even had to learn how lighting wires worked.

Whatever his role was, Mr Toh always catered to the needs of his customers, building a loyal base, and even won a national award, the Excellent Service Award (Silver).

For the staff, John Little was also a haven. Employees had their own pantry, and the luxury of having meal breaks within the store.

Said Mr Toh: "We had an auntie selling economical rice beside the pantry. Food was so cheap then; it cost only $2.50. She would also give us coffee and tea from a kettle."

Their lunch breaks would sometimes be accompanied by tunes from a guitar played by a colleague.

He also recalled Christmas parties within the store itself, with wares pushed aside to make way for fun. And just downstairs was Japanese department store and supermarket Yaohan, where Mr Toh and his colleagues would buy snacks from.

While the John Little department store may have closed, a piece of it has lived in Mr Toh's home for the past 10 years - a lounge chair he took a fancy to and bought.

Less tangible are the friendships that he has built and kept with his close-knit teams while working there. Last month, 40 of them made a day trip to Malacca. "It was nice, we were talking and laughing. And eating, of course," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2017, with the headline 'Big change for John Little staff as last outlet is shut '. Print Edition | Subscribe