Singaporeans are no strangers to the ups and downs of the economy and the impact of a sharp downturn, not least on the retail sector. However, there was a palpable sense of shock at news that department store stalwart Robinsons was calling it a day after 162 years. It is closing its last two department stores here at The Heeren and Raffles City Shopping Centre. Its decision to liquidate the stores was prompted by a range of factors, including changing consumer tastes and cost pressures such as rent. For loyal customers, Robinsons' impending departure from the retail scene marks the end of longstanding relationships with the store and its staff. After all, a store founded in 1858 could not have survived Singapore's transition through colonialism, two world wars, and merger with Malaysia and Separation, and go on to flourish in independent Singapore, without the patronage of customers who found it worthy of their support even in the face of changing tastes and needs.
Parents handed down their engagement with the store, personified by its staff, to their children. One customer, who remarked that Robinsons was an old friend, summed up the sentiments of those Singaporeans who see the store as an iconic institution. A 69-year-old cashier, who has worked at Robinsons for nearly 50 years, exemplifies the store's loyalty to its staff, which mirrors its customers' loyalty to it. Unfortunately, even social relationships built up over time cannot evade the inexorable laws of supply and demand that determine the health of economies and their retail sector. Robinsons' closure dramatises concerns over whether the overarching business model of department stores is outdated.