The future of the Great Singapore Sale (GSS), which for 23 years helped cement the city's reputation as a shopping paradise, could be in question.
This comes after three consecutive years of decline in retail sales during the GSS period, despite new attempts to lure tourists and locals alike with an extended sale, more payment options and contest prizes.
GSS organiser Singapore Retailers Association (SRA) is planning to discuss the direction of the annual event with the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), said SRA president R. Dhinakaran. "We need to discuss if there is a point in continuing it, or whether there is a need to reformat it," he told The Straits Times.
His comments come after the latest official sale figures confirm that efforts this year to arrest the slide have failed. The GSS this year lasted 10 weeks from June to the middle of last month.
Singapore Department of Statistics figures released on Thursday showed a 3 per cent fall in July's retail sales excluding motor vehicles, compared with last year. This follows a similar dip in June's figure, which was 3 per cent lower than last year's - indicating that the sale had got off to a slow start.
Despite June's figures, Mr Dhinakaran said then that SRA was optimistic that July's retail sales would pick up and that a strategy of extending the GSS to mid-August to capture more tourist dollars would prove to be beneficial to the industry. This was not to be.
Retailers and experts say the slowing economy - both at home and abroad - was a key factor in this year's poor showing. But the fact is that the GSS seems to have been losing its appeal for some time now.
Annual sales in other countries
Malaysia The 1Malaysia Mega Sale Carnival, usually held from June to August, offers contests, prizes and street food.
While the sale, which started in 2000, spans the whole of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur has won several global shopping awards, including the world's 5th Best Shopping Destination by the Expedia UK website this year. Shopping expenditure made up RM21.6 billion (S$7.1 billion), or 31 per cent, of total tourist receipts of RM69.1 billion last year, surpassing accommodation as the top contributor to Malaysia's tourism income, said the Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board.
Dubai Started in 1996, the Dubai Shopping Festival is the largest shopping event in the Middle East. The January event features celebrity performances and flash mobs, and even earned a Guinness World Record for a 5km handmade gold chain to mark its 20th anniversary last year.
Ms Laila Mohammad Suhail, chief executive of organiser Dubai Festivals and Retail Establishment, said retailers earn about 25 per cent to 30 per cent of their annual sales through it, a "clear" sign of success.
South Korea Started in 2000, the Korea Grand Sale runs from August to October, and January to February each year. It features celebrity performances and opening- day events at South Korea's airports. From August to October last year, gross sales were 345.7 billion won (S$420 million), 11 per cent more than the previous year's sales, said the Visit Korea Committee.
Jalelah Abu Baker
"The GSS has lost its meaning," said Dr Jimmy Wong, a senior lecturer at the School of Business in SIM University. "It needs to be rebranded. There must be a purpose, otherwise, it is just another sale, and consumers are pretty bored by it."
Marketing academic Prem Shamdasani from the National University of Singapore added that competition from the region and the growth of e-commerce have led to GSS' diminished appeal.
That said, most say the sale should go on - if ways to breathe new life into it can be found. The GSS was launched by STB in 1994 to market Singapore as a shopping destination.
It is time to reformat it, said Orchard Road Business Association executive director Steven Goh.
It should be held when Singaporeans are in the country, rather than in June, when many are away during the school holidays, he suggested. The GSS could even be held twice, once to capture Singaporeans, and another to attract tourists.
He also said retailers should come to a consensus on saving their best deals for the GSS.
"That way, it will be really one-off and impactful," he said, noting an increasing trend of shops holding sales at other times.
Dr Wong suggested having themes such as a "green GSS", with deals for recycled products.
Retailers said that while the impact of the GSS is now in doubt, there is reason to keep it.
Mr Nelson Ng, a store manager at clothes shop Stussy in Cathay Cineleisure Orchard, said the 30 per cent to 50 per cent discounts he offered did not budge his sales numbers. But he said the GSS may benefit shops that cater to an older crowd not familiar with online shopping.
Mrs Fong Loo Fern, managing director of tailoring business CYC The Custom Shop, said it serves a branding purpose. "There is much buzz during this period which gives a cohesive look to the sales taking place in many retail outlets."
There are also businesses, such as multi-label lifestyle concept store DOT, which did see a hike in sales. It registered a year-on-year 12 per cent increase this July through the GSS.
Consumers who grew up with the GSS, like Ms Grace Chen, a 29-year-old business development manager, still appreciate it.
"It's still the biggest sale in Singapore, and I prefer to see and touch the items physically before buying them, instead of shopping online."
• Readers who have ideas for making the GSS better may e-mail email@example.com