Tough times at Far East Plaza

Far East Plaza's Level One (left), a teen shopping haven that opened to much fanfare in 2002, is a rather desolate place now with more than a few shops shuttered (centre) and even fewer customers. The last major revamp at the 33-year-old mall (right)
Far East Plaza's Level One (left), a teen shopping haven that opened to much fanfare in 2002, is a rather desolate place now with more than a few shops shuttered (centre) and even fewer customers. The last major revamp at the 33-year-old mall (right) was in 2005, when it spent $6.53 million to improve its floors, ceilings and external walkways.PHOTOS: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Far East Plaza's Level One (left), a teen shopping haven that opened to much fanfare in 2002, is a rather desolate place now with more than a few shops shuttered (centre) and even fewer customers. The last major revamp at the 33-year-old mall (right)
Far East Plaza's Level One (left), a teen shopping haven that opened to much fanfare in 2002, is a rather desolate place now with more than a few shops shuttered (centre) and even fewer customers. The last major revamp at the 33-year-old mall (right) was in 2005, when it spent $6.53 million to improve its floors, ceilings and external walkways.PHOTOS: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Far East Plaza's Level One, a teen shopping haven that opened to much fanfare in 2002, is a rather desolate place now with more than a few shops shuttered and even fewer customers. The last major revamp at the 33-year-old mall was in 2005, when it sp
Far East Plaza's Level One, a teen shopping haven that opened to much fanfare in 2002, is a rather desolate place now with more than a few shops shuttered and even fewer customers. The last major revamp at the 33-year-old mall was in 2005, when it spent $6.53 million to improve its floors, ceilings and external walkways. -- PHOTOS: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Slow business at many fashion stores as shoppers flock to mega malls

Far East Plaza, once a popular haunt for teenagers, seems to have fallen out of favour.

The Straits Times, which visited the mall several times over the past month, saw more than 10 stores on the first floor with their shutters down and displaying "For Lease" signs.

While the eateries on levels one, four and five were bustling during lunch hour, few customers ventured into the shops.

Tenants said business has slowed by as much as 50 per cent, compared to a decade ago.

"There are simply too many mega malls which have opened in the past five years, and it is the norm to see retail tenants change every two to three years," said the mall's centre manager, Mr Kenneth Lim.

For 33-year-old Far East Plaza, adapting to the competition will not be easy.

For a major revamp to be carried out, the majority of the strata-titled mall's more than 500 individual owners will need to agree to it, which would be challenging, Mr Lim acknowledged.

The last major revamp was in 2005, when it spent $6.53 million to improve its floors, ceilings and external walkways.

Three years earlier, department store Metro vacated its 50,000 sq ft space on the first floor. It was replaced by Level One, a warren of shops selling apparel mainly targeted at teenagers.

Times have changed, said Ms Joanne Teo, 32, who has been working at Level One clothing store Red 2 for the past 13 years.

"When Level One opened, Ion and 313@somerset hadn't opened yet. H&M, which also sells cheap clothes, also hadn't come to Singapore," she said, adding that footfall at Level One has fallen by 50 per cent over the years.

Another of Level One's pioneer clothing stores, Code Red, may move to a suburban mall if business does not improve, said an owner, Madam Joanna Tie, 50.

Clothing shops on the other floors of the five-storey mall are not faring any better.

However, the nail and hair salons still enjoy a steady stream of customers.

Ms Kelly Chong, 36, part-owner of hair salon Queen's Cut on the fifth floor, said her business relies on regulars, who make up 70 per cent of her customers.

Mr Charles Yue, 56, a property agent helping to lease out the mall's units, said there are around 30 vacant units out of some 600 shops.

"They are usually vacant for three to six months," he said. "Each lease is about two years, although cases where tenants want to break their lease before it is up have become more common."

Mr Ong Kah Seng, director of property consultancy R'ST Research, estimates that rents, which are set by individual owners, have fallen by between 10 and 15 per cent over the past two to three years.

The mall could reposition itself as an incubator for budding entrepreneurs, he suggested. Vacant units can be sub-divided into smaller shops and offered rent-free for the first three months to young retailers with innovative products.

"If such an energising, new vibrant concept gets mass appeal and recognised, then it will earn accolades for the mall - as one which offers entry retailers a platform to successfully start their services," he said.

Polytechnic student Yumi Ono, 23, said she used to shop at the mall a few years back, but now buys her clothes online.

"All these clothes can be found on blogshops. Why do I need to travel when I can buy online?" she said.

Still, there are tenants who are willing to stay because of the cheaper rental and flexibility, compared to developer-owned malls.

Madam Lilian Tan, who is in her 60s and helps out at her daughter's clothing store on the third floor, said: "Those malls also dictate what time to open and close (a shop). Here, if we feel like opening, we open. If we don't, we can keep the shop closed."

mellinjm@sph.com.sg