Mall bad news... but some bright spots

The rise of e-commerce, competition from overseas destinations, and weak consumer sentiments are a triple whammy for brick-and-mortar retailers here. The Sunday Times looks at how retailers and malls are responding to the challenges.

An interior view of The Centrepoint mall. PHOTO: ST FILE

In just over a year, clothing retailer Hang Ten has closed more than a third of its stores.

The 12 outlets, in suburban malls, had been bleeding money. Consumers were spending less but Hang Ten's landlords were still charging high rents, said its general manager Andrew Kee.

"We started to close non-profitable suburban shops since Q4 2015 to reduce losses and just concentrate on a few strategic locations."

The days of suburban malls as the retail sector's bright spot are coming to an end, said property consultancies.

For the past five years, as the rise of e-commerce and growing economic uncertainty pushed Orchard Road retailers out of business, suburban malls were fairly resilient.

Such malls could fall back on shoppers living in the area, unlike the tourist-reliant Orchard Road, which is susceptible to competition from overseas destinations and lacklustre tourist arrivals.

But as the challenges drag on, suburban malls are being dealt a belated reality check.

Some mall managers are fighting back by offering short-term leases, filling their spaces with food and beverage outlets, and adding more lifestyle elements to their malls.

According to property research consultancy R'ST Research, rents of retail properties in Orchard Road fell by about 11.1 per cent on average from 2012 to 2015.

Over the same period, rents of suburban retail spaces dipped only marginally at about 1.4 per cent.

The turning point was last year, when the pace of decline of suburban rents quickened - from 1 per cent quarter-on-quarter in the first quarter to 2 per cent in the fourth quarter, said R'ST Research's director Ong Kah Seng.

This is a sign that rents in suburban malls are going downhill, he added.

Tenants are also feeling the heat.

Czech shoe company Bata's country manager Pierluigi Pontecorvo said it is increasingly difficult to operate in suburban malls now, compared with two years ago.

Footfall has reduced "drastically", while little has been done by malls to attract customers, he said, adding that landlords were also not flexible in reducing rental costs to help retailers cope with the challenges.

To retain customers, Hang Ten - which has 21 stores - revamped its loyalty programme in 2015.

With online stores such as Taobao, Zalora and Lazada gaining traction, retailers that sell mass market items and clothing are finding it harder to survive.

Malls are hence devoting more space to food and beverage, a trend that became more prominent since mid-2015, according to real estate consultancy Knight Frank Singapore.

Its executive director and head of retail Wendy Low said F&B, on average, makes up up to half of a suburban mall's tenants, compared to about a quarter previously.

Mr Desmond Sim, head of CBRE Research for Singapore and South-east Asia, said suburban malls are banking on experiential elements to draw shoppers.

Next month, Waterway Point in Punggol will launch a new party room next to the mall's playground on the second storey, where shoppers can hold family gatherings.

Frasers Centrepoint Malls is working with existing tenants to pilot new ideas, including temporary short-term leases or pop-up stores, said its general manager of retail properties Stephanie Ho.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 05, 2017, with the headline Mall bad news... but some bright spots. Subscribe