S'pore malls employ new approach to draw shoppers

The bumper car arena in Timezone’s flagship store at VivoCity, one of Singapore’s largest shopping centres. Brick-and-mortar businesses are going beyond selling products and services to offer store consumers new experiences in their bid to drive
The bumper car arena in Timezone’s flagship store at VivoCity, one of Singapore’s largest shopping centres. Brick-and-mortar businesses are going beyond selling products and services to offer store consumers new experiences in their bid to drive up shopper traffic. PHOTO: TIMEZONE SINGAPORE

Online shopping in Singapore is lacklustre even after Amazon Inc debuted its Prime service mid-last year. The island's malls are trying hard to keep it that way.

With some of its biggest mall operators reporting falling rents and rising vacancies, landlords, just like those elsewhere in Asia and the United States, are being forced to reposition. They are making room for yoga studios, boxing gyms and climbing walls - plus expanding food and beverage options - to make sure people come for the dining and fun, and hopefully, stay for some shopping.

Centres around the world have tried similar stunts in recent years - often to no avail - but in Singapore, where it is often joked that shopping is the national sport, they do have an advantage.

Online shopping penetration ranks behind Slovakia and Greece in the city-state, putting it relatively low down for developed economies. It accounted for 5.7 per cent of total sales last year, up from 2.1 per cent in 2012, according to Euromonitor data. The Government is also weighing a tax on e-commerce imports from 2020.

There are early signs the gambit is working - at least in terms of driving up traffic. At VivoCity, one of the island's largest shopping centres, visitor numbers rose 3.1 per cent in the six months to Sept 30 from a year earlier as owner Mapletree Commercial Trust added an arcade - with a bumper car ring. Yet, actual shopping fell slightly.

In other malls, visitors can spend a day taking a cooking class or joining a complimentary yoga session. At CapitaLand's Clarke Quay, you'll be able to sip margaritas while playing a round of indoor mini golf. CapitaLand's soon-to-open revamped Funan mall will feature an ABC Cooking Studio, where people can sign up for bread-baking lessons or classes to make wagashi, traditional Japanese sweets.

Shopper traffic at CapitaLand Mall Trust, which has a portfolio of 15 centres, declined 1.8 per cent in the nine months ended September from a year ago, while tenants' sales per sq ft climbed 0.5 per cent over the same period.

"While the current market share of online sales is small, its pace of growth will only speed up as tomorrow's consumers enter the market," CapitaLand chief executive officer Lee Chee Koon said in September at a ceremony to mark the new Funan centre. "Brick-and-mortar businesses must go beyond passively selling products and services to generating quality retail experiences and emotional connections."

Amazon's Prime launched in July last year and almost immediately faced delivery delays - a costly snafu in a market where the nearest store is just minutes away for most people. Singapore vies with Hong Kong for the most retail space per capita in Asia. Amazon was the sixth-ranked online shopping app on the Apple Store by active users in the third quarter, behind home-grown rivals like Qoo10, data compiled by iPrice Group shows.

Malls that cannot effectively incorporate activity-based tenants risk falling behind, both in terms of footfall and retail rents, according to Cushman & Wakefield. Millennials, in particular, are a target of non-shopping ventures.

But while the plethora of new activities has helped drive traffic, the uptick has failed to translate into real money. Mall rents fell 18 per cent over the past year and vacancies rose in the quarter to September, to 7.6 per cent, Urban Redevelopment Authority data shows.

And with an estimated 803,000 sq ft of retail space coming online in the next 15 months, rents will remain under pressure, said JLL head of research for Singapore Tay Huey Ying. "Until brick-and-mortar retail stores manage to convert foot traffic into in-store purchases, rentals are expected to remain subdued."

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 27, 2018, with the headline 'S'pore malls employ new approach to draw shoppers'. Print Edition | Subscribe