More variety will boost retail landscape

Shoppers crossing at the traffic light at Orchard Road.PHOTO: ST FILE

The fashion retail landscape is in for a turbulent ride. Recent developments here easily bear this out.

Home-grown fashion retailer Jay Gee Melwani is set to shutter British brand New Look and French menswear chain Celio in the second half of the year, a move that mirrors the United Arab Emirates- based Al-Futtaim Group's closure of 10 of its loss-making outlets here.

That these retailers have met such an end is no coincidence. Like the proverbial perfect storm, exorbitant rentals, a soft economy, weak consumer sentiment and the rise of e-commerce have all conspired to make fashion retail an increasingly difficult business opportunity.

But underpinning all these recent closures is the Darwinian implication that only the fittest will survive. Apart from the perfect storm, there have to be other factors that contributed to their exits from the scene. After all, why do some brands prosper while others falter, especially if every brand has to operate under the same challenging conditions?

The issue with many fashion brands that came and went - especially the mid-priced ones - is that they suffered from a lack of differentiation. Markets everywhere have been flooded with brands, creating the illusion that there is a multitude of choices when these are mere iterations of the same-old. (Snip the labels off some of this apparel and it is hard to tell one brand from the other.) These days, the brands that stand out - the Nikes and the Uniqlos of the world - are those that have a unique point of view and a solid identity.

The chain closures will, of course, lead to job losses. And a soft retail scene will weaken the economy. And if Singapore brands itself as a world-class shopping destination, then this could dent its reputation.

The exits may be a loss for the retail scene, but they are also a clarion call to retailers to up their game and introduce more robust brands to energise the retail environment. Consumers definitely want more choices. But they do not want just more of the same. Only when brands can deliver the proper variety will this be a win-win situation for all.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 09, 2016, with the headline 'More variety will boost retail'. Print Edition | Subscribe