Six ways to lift Singapore out of the retail doldrum

Singapore's retail sector may be looking gloomy, but all is not lost as six trailblazers share ideas on how to brighten up the scene

To describe shopping here, six individuals - including influencers in their own industries - throw up the words homogeneous, safe, scripted.

The outspoken Ms Patrina Tan, senior vice-president for retail, marketing and leasing at property developer OUE, calls it as it is: boring and dead.

This lack of imagination, compounded by restrictions imposed by landlords, unadventurous shoppers and uninspired service staff, has eroded the Republic's reputation as a shopping paradise, they say.

One has to look only as far as the ailing Great Singapore Sale (GSS), seen by many as a microcosm of the wider malaise affecting the industry here, to see how times have changed.

Launched by the Singapore Tourism Board in 1994 to market the city, the GSS had helped to cement Singapore's standing as a shopper's haven.

Tourists flocked to the island during the sale period, stores trotted out steep discounts and Singaporeans would wait for the sale to make big-ticket purchases.

But its golden days are over. Last week, GSS organisers questioned its relevance after three consecutive years of dwindling takings. Discussions are under way to see if it should be scraped.

Critics say the GSS and brick- and-mortar stores in Singapore have failed to evolve with changing consumer preferences, letting regional competitors such as Hong Kong and Japan steal their thunder.

Others point out that retailers here have a lot to grapple with - a slowing economy, falling tourism spending, a labour crunch, the rise of e-commerce as well as high operational costs.

But, across the board, all agree on one thing: Singapore is simply not the shopping paradise it once was.

Can the island recover its shine?

The Straits Times asks six trailblazers for ideas on how to lift the nation out of the retail doldrums.


1. Loosen up, mall owners

Malls' uniform appearance and short-term leases make them unappealing to set up business in, says Mr Loh Lik PengPHOTO: ST FILE

If hotelier-restaurateur Loh Lik Peng could say one thing to mall landlords, it would be this: Please stop your obsession with the polished, corporate look.

And please, please, give longer-term leases.

This will breathe new life into Singapore's cookie- cutter retail scene, dominated by shopping malls all too similar to one another, he says.

Drawing from past experience, the director of Unlisted Collection, which runs a stable of restaurants including Salted & Hung, Pollen and Esquina, says malls typically tell prospective tenants to submit a design of their restaurant or shop that is "subject to approval from mall management".

"I think this is unfortunate because malls here are obsessed about how they look in terms of their facade. You do not encourage innovation when you do that," says the 44-year-old, who also manages hotels including New Majestic in Bukit Pasoh Road and Wanderlust in Little India.

"You are 'strongly encouraged' to have that very sort of, frankly, that very polished look. So you don't find interesting shop fronts," says the father of two.

"All the malls want that shiny kind of look with the double storey and huge branding. This uniformity is driven by the malls."

The Republic has more than 100 malls across the island. Along Orchard Road - the country's famous retail belt - there are at least 40 shopping centres, with many standing side by side along the 2.2km boulevard.

Despite numerous requests, Mr Loh has yet to open a restaurant in a mall.

"It never reached the stage of us giving them a rendering, we just could not be bothered. Most malls want a cookie-cutter thing. They want the retail experience to be very uniform as the customer walks through. That is just not us," says Mr Loh, who was one of the first movers in the heritage boutique hotel segment here - he opened Hotel 1929 in Keong Saik Road in 2003.

Non-mall landlords, he says, give tenants free rein and "nobody dictates how you must look, how wide your door is".

Mr Loh, who is drawn to the quaint vintage shops in Notting Hill in London, as well as the "small-tailoring" shops in the nearby Spitalfields district, says: "You can never get this kind of store here."

The short lease terms and requirement that tenants put down a large rental deposit, he says, are too prohibitive.

In Singapore, landlords typically offer a "three plus three" retail lease agreement, which is fixed for the initial three years, but leaves room for rental adjustments and a reassessment thereafter.

"If you go to England or Australia, your minimum lease is 15 years. Here, even if you build a successful outlet, chances are, the next round, the landlord will raise the rent because he sees you doing well," he says.

"It is a landlord's market in Singapore. Three plus three, it's crazy, it does not encourage people to take risks."

2. Know the shopper

Retailers should identify their consumer and build their concept on their target group's lifestyle and needs, says Ms Patrina TanST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Bigger and better do not cut it anymore - not if you want shoppers to bite.

To get them to stick, businesses must study what makes them tick, says Ms Patrina Tan, senior vice-president for retail, marketing and leasing at property developer OUE.

"Find out what their lifestyle is now, so that you can put forth a proposition that relates to them, that will make them sit up and want to part with their time, attention and money. Then, evolve with them," says Ms Tan, speaking to The Straits Times at a cafe in Mandarin Gallery, which OUE manages.

This, says the 48-year-old, must be the approach taken to revamp retail here - shops cannot simply import concepts from overseas or hire a good interior designer to create "just another pretty place".

Adding that many retailers here take this short-cut, she says: "Who can do better in terms of interior design, how sustainable is that?"

"The question to ask is, really, what is it that is holding the customer?"

Downtown Gallery, OUE's bold retail concept in the Central Business District to open by the first quarter of next year, is the property developer's attempt to answer that question. But it is not for every shopper, of course - specifically, it targets working adults who value fitness and want to live well.

This market, says Ms Tan, includes the highly sought-after consumer segment, Middle-Aged Men In Lycra or Mamils - cycling enthusiast fathers aged between 35 and 45 who ride expensive racing bicycles for leisure and wear spandex for comfort.

Retail is ancillary at the 145,000 sq ft compound. Instead, it is dominated by services - gyms, chiropractors and a 4,000 sq ft "social kitchen" where shoppers can book slots and bring their own ingredients to cook.

"In this space, they can work out, get themselves cleaned up, have a meal that supports their lifestyle of eating clean, then pick up things they need - like a yoga top - or do their hair," says the mother of four, adding that OUE works with tenants to pull out specific products to appeal to this target market.

There will also be a trend gallery on the ground floor with the latest "in eating well, keeping well and looking well".

This laser-beam precision is sorely lacking among retailers here, she says, describing them as "jittery".

"Halfway through things, they get kiasu and start widening their nets to try and catch a little bit here, a little bit there for fear of losing out. When you do that, everything gets diluted and you end up being nothing to anyone."

Orchard Road, she says, is still known for its luxury brands, as suburban malls are unable to bait them for now. But the challenge, she says, is for such brands to reach out to the millennials.

"Your Louis Vuitton, Prada, Bottega Veneta - these may not be luxury to them. The definition of luxury is changing. For some, living well is a badge of luxury; for others, it is being able to mix and match different classes of things at different price points to form a statement. Luxury is not confined to brands anymore."

Shoppers, she says, are now exposed to a cornucopia of brands worldwide - bespoke ones, streetwear and independent labels - many of them more statement- making as far as the individual is concerned.

Retail in Singapore now, "it is boring, it is dead".

She adds: "Most of the retailers here, sadly, you try to sell them a concept and they just throw up their hands and complain that consumers are jaded and not spending, that online is cannibalising their business, all these excuses.

"But the truth is, what are you doing about it in your own space?"

3. Set up brand temples

The future of retail is to create brand temples where consumers can experience the brand, says creative director Chris Lee.PHOTO: YANG TAN

Brand bombing - where businesses flood the market with outlets, one in every mall - is passe.

Retailers should instead have one or two "brand temples" for shoppers to visit to "breathe in the brand", says Mr Chris Lee, founder and creative director of design agency Asylum. The bulk of sales can then be conducted online.

Such temples, says the 46-year-old, let retailers introduce themselves and paint a narrative.

"Such temples are a way to get buy-in, to reel consumers in to become advocates," says Mr Lee, whose firm is behind the branding of National Gallery Singapore.

"People now want to be connected to what they are buying and they want to know the story behind everything - where the fabric is from, how is it made."

Take, for instance, an Asylum project in Beijing - a four-storey Johnnie Walker House opened in 2013, one of the whisky label's "brand temples".

Its reception area is a modern take on a grocery store, as the label's founder John Walker started as a grocer in Scotland.

From there, you enter a room adorned with the primary ingredients of whisky, with walls of barley, peat and a flowing water wall.

Old Johnnie Walker advertisements from Hong Kong and China in the early 1900s, around the time the brand started reaching out to the China market, are fashioned into lamp shades and wallpaper.

Bottles are tagged with radio frequency identification chips. Place one on the table and it turns into a screen with information of what ingredients are in that particular bottle and how to appreciate it.

The public is allowed into the bar in the basement, but the other floors are open only to invited guests.

Visitors can buy limited-edition bottles that cannot be found anywhere else or customise a barrel.

Such houses, says Mr Lee, helped create an edge for Johnnie Walker in the saturated whisky market.

Other brands are starting to catch on, he says, pointing out Uniqlo's new flagship store in Orchard Central which boasts curated spaces co-created with home-grown production houses, brands and musicians. When the store opened on Sept 2, consumers queued up to attend workshops and snag limitededition totes.

"People always want a reason to go to a store. I would make the retail space as entertaining as the shopping," he says, throwing out a suggestion to retailers.

"Why not, instead of selling me clothes, sell me mood. Are you thinking party or a weekend away in Phuket? Then direct me to specially curated areas.

"Shops here just don't do enough."

4. Make service staff love the job

Having happy employees gives an edge to a retail store or restaurant, says chef Bjorn Shen.PHOTO: ST FILE

Give chef Bjorn Shen the chance and he would kill this oft-uttered phrase: The customer is always right.

This mentality, he says, turns away self-respecting individuals who want to work in the service sector - and puts retail in Singapore at a disadvantage.

"This has been my biggest beef with the industry, this phrase, that the customer is always right. It needs to have been dead 10 years ago," says the 34-year-old, who owns restaurants Artichoke Cafe & Bar in Middle Road and Bird Bird in Tanjong Pagar.

"When business owners have this mentality, staff feel powerless and servile. They will never love their job, they will never see it as something for the long term."

This is one reason Singapore cannot compete with competition overseas, he says.

"It's not like in other countries where you walk into a shop and someone says, 'Hi, how are you? Can I help you with anything? All right I will be here if you need any help.'

"In Singapore, the sales staff say a very scripted thing or tail you wherever you go. A lot of that natural warmth is missing," he says.

"Ask me what my name is or how my day has been. Don't just say, 'What size you want?' Or, "This one also got this colour.'" he quips, with a chuckle.

The change, says the father-to-be, has to come from the top.

Take, for example, an incident at Artichoke, when a customer demanded to change an order that she claimed was put in "a minute ago".

Chef Shen quickly checked the restaurant's CCTV camera and found that the order had been placed eight minutes ago. The diner was told, but left happy after she was served the dish she asked for free of charge.

"My staff, they felt we did the right thing. If I had given them a hard time, they'd have felt a great sense of injustice," he says, adding that one thing he asks of his staff is to make an emotional connection with every table.

At fried chicken eatery Bird Bird, employees are given a stack of shot glasses and told to hand out free shooters on busy Friday nights.

"What we are trying to create is an atmosphere of generosity. It's not like we are going to strip you of every dollar you have. In fact, here is something free," he says, describing the move.

"When you do that, people become better friends. It's much more than the product, it's the delivery, the atmosphere, the energy - everything else."

Having happy staff is what he hopes will give him an edge - which is crucial now, a time he calls "the breaking point" in the service industry.

"We have pushed ourselves to the point that the bubble has burst. How many shops and restaurants can Singapore sustain? How much can someone eat and buy? I think we have gone beyond the breaking point," he says, adding that businesses have definitely been affected.

"We cannot reverse the fact that we just have too many shops and restaurants. Now, the only way to survive is to find a way to take someone else's piece of the pie."

5. Support home-grown shops

Singaporeans can help the retail scene by giving new brands and styles a chance, says artist Woon Tien Wei.ST PHOTO: MARCUS TAN

What ails Singapore's retail scene is that it is just "too safe", says home-grown artist Woon Tien Wei.

The curator of Post-Museum, an independent cultural and social space in Rowell Road, says he sees this on all fronts - consumers are too cautious and so are retailers and landlords.

The result is a bland retail destination flooded with duplicate stores from major brands, with sparing content from home-grown designers and few unique offerings.

"We are too safe. Shoppers shy away from exploring new styles, new brands," says the 41-year-old.

"They stick to the tried-and-tested, the mainstream brands. People should go to a different neighbourhood, see what others are doing.

"It's like in the arts, people go to big, loud, mainstream events such as the Night Festival. But in such a space, you won't get to experience the more quiet works. Give them a chance too. Are we watching only blockbuster movies? These are of a cookie-cutter format. What about alternatives? The same can be said about fashion."

Being nationalistic, he says, should not be just about putting up your flag once a year.

He points out, for instance, that Singapore niche retailers in the books industry - such as Books Actually, Grassroots Book Room and Select Books - would find it hard-pressed to grow.

"I would like to see them grow and become good, big bookstores, like retail bookstore chain Eslite in Taiwan, which has become an institution, a purveyor of culture," he says.

"I don't see that happening here. Consumers think of book stores as a sunset business."

He adds: "There are genuine people out there doing good, honest, solid business and we should get to know them and support them for what they do."

When consumers shy away from the new and different, it affects retailers, he says.

"They stick to what they know will work and will ensure their survival. They stop imagining," says Woon, pointing out that even hipster stores in Haji Lane are starting to follow a formula, offering similar clothing and the same bare-essentials decor.

"They will always have the Kinfolk magazine and the Flying Pigeon bicycle," he says, referring to the hip indie magazine and the retro bicycle brand.

Landlords, too, have this mindset, preferring to take the easy way out by bringing in brands with a good track record: flagship stores of major brand names and luxury maisons.

Rents are also high, a huge challenge for fledgling brands.

"Malls think, I bring an H&M in here, a Uniqlo there - it will work," he says, adding that prominent spaces in malls tend to be leased to tenants who can pay the most.

"Singapore brands go to less prominent spaces because they cannot afford the rent.

"And with a population that may not seek them out and having no money to advertise, well, it's just a vicious circle."

6. Help shoppers hone their style

Fashion stores should curate accessories that complement their products to enhance the shopping experience, says Ms Neo Lirong.ST PHOTO: AZMI ATHNI

Shoppers these days want to make a statement.

"Retailers should help us do that," says Ms Neo Lirong, 29.

The freelance fashion stylist mostly shops overseas, at second-hand stores in Omotesando, Japan, or at the wholesale centres in Dongdaemun, South Korea.

These areas, she says, "speak" to her - a feeling that she does not get here.

"Over there, I go from shop to shop and I find something I want in every one. It's almost like the items have been curated to suit my style," she says, adding that each area attracts certain shops based on the district's personality.

Shopping in Singapore, on the other hand, is just "not here, not there", she says.

"Every mall is so formulaic. It wants to appeal to everyone - there is a movie theatre, something for kids, a supermarket, a foodcourt," she says, adding that she turns to online fashion stores such as Asos for "the basics".

"It's boring in Singapore, there is no vibe. Why would I take the time to go out and shop when I can get everything I want so conveniently online?"

She describes her style as street and rock chic, an image she feels projects her carefree and relaxed personality.

To achieve her look, she picks mostly monochrome colours spiced up with a statement piece - a pair of Gucci fur-lined loafers, for instance, or a studded leather jacket, or a vintage bag.

Occasionally, she throws on a hat or her favourite item, a pair of Adidas sneakers.

"Shoppers like me, we want to stand out from our peers. Dressing up, to me, is about mixing items and making a statement," she says. "It's not really about specific brands anymore."

The bachelorette, who styles Mediacorp artists such as Chen Liping and Rui En, hopes retailers here can help her hone her style.

She suggests they curate accessories or shoes that may complement items in their collection, or have a stylist on site to give tips to shoppers.

Subscription boxes - where shoppers pay a fixed amount each month for a bumper box of fashion items - may also be a good way for businesses to snag her as a loyal customer.

"I may not like every item in the box, but you are giving me new ideas," she says. "And that's a real bonus."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 29, 2016, with the headline Six ways to lift Singapore out of the retail doldrum. Subscribe