Large dept stores face challenges: Experts

They say impending closure of John Little's last outlet reflects changing shopping trends

Shoppers checking out the closing sale at John Little's Plaza Singapura outlet on Monday. The department store will be revived next year as a pop-up concept.
Shoppers checking out the closing sale at John Little's Plaza Singapura outlet on Monday. The department store will be revived next year as a pop-up concept.PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Even as loyal customers of Singapore's oldest department store are saddened by the impending closure of John Little's last brick-and-mortar store, retail experts said they saw it coming, as many consumers gravitate to newer shopping concepts.

Department stores are no longer the one-stop shops they used to be for consumers, thanks to changing tastes and online shopping, retail experts said. And stores that do not narrow their focus face an uphill battle.

"The all-in-one concept where the whole family can go and shop is no longer the trend. Now, it's very much about individual boutiques, especially for young people," said Singapore Polytechnic senior retail lecturer Sarah Lim.

At John Little's Plaza Singapura outlet on Monday, lunchtime crowds - many of whom looked to be in their 30s and 40s - thronged the store to take advantage of closing sale discounts of up to 90 per cent, ahead of its last day of operations on Jan 2.

Sales executive Theresa Thng, 43, who has shopped at John Little for more than a decade, said its planned revival next year as a pop-up concept brings little comfort. Pop-up stores are temporary retail spaces.

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"It won't be the same. I like the wide selection and quality (now), and being able to get everything in one place," she said.

But for 26-year-old Sharmaine Koh, who was browsing the department store's cosmetics selection, it was her first time stepping into a John Little store, and she had gone down only for the sale.

"I don't really shop at department stores. There's a wider selection online and it's easier to find deals there," said Ms Koh, who works in advertising.

Online marketplaces such as Taobao and Amazon have emerged as "a new type of department store", said Singapore Polytechnic marketing and retail lecturer Amos Tan.

"Shopping today is about selling an experience, and retailers need to be very clear and targeted about who they are serving," he said.

High rental and manpower costs and maintaining a large inventory also pose major challenges to large department stores, experts said.

Robinsons Group, which manages John Little, said in a statement last Friday that the decision to close the store after 174 years here was made "after evaluating the relevancy and sustainability of the John Little brick-and-mortar business".

But its return next year in a pop-up format is a good idea, said Singapore Polytechnic's Ms Lim, as John Little can streamline its products while leveraging on the goodwill the brand has created.

A Plaza Singapura spokesman said that the mall is in discussions with a number of retailers who have expressed interest in taking over the 38,000 sq ft space on the first floor that John Little will vacate.

John Little had eight branches at its peak in 2003, including its flagship store at Specialists' Shopping Centre, which shut in 2007 after more than 20 years.

The impending closure of its last store also comes amid a challenging retail environment. Estimated retail sales in August, excluding cars, dropped 6.5 per cent over the same period last year, with declines in most segments, including a 3.9 per cent slide for department stores.

Marks & Spencer Group announced on Tuesday that it would be pulling out of 10 countries as part of a restructuring plan, though Singapore is not among them.

Still, some department stores have been able to sail through the headwinds. Japanese lifestyle brand Muji, which has 10 outlets here, said its sales this year are expected to be 7 per cent higher than last year on a same-store basis.

A spokesman for Isetan Singapore said that sales this year are about the same as last year.

For long-time John Little shoppers like Ms Pauline Leong, who grew up going to the Specialists' Shopping Centre outlet with her mother, it is the end of an era.

"I like (John Little's) friendly shopping assistants, and striking up short chats with them or other customers," said Ms Leong, who is self-employed and in her 30s.

"It is the personal shopping experience that I will miss and love."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 10, 2016, with the headline 'Large dept stores face challenges: Experts'. Subscribe