Back in the warmth of Singapore for our graduation and alumni events and associated student and other meetings, and there seemed to be only one question people had for me; what could be done about Singapore’s ailing retail sector? On the surface there seemed little wrong – lots of people around – but beneath this, things may be a little scary.
Singapore is not a large place and its connectivity has expanded rapidly over recent decades, with more MRT and other lines on the way. The raising of quality and quantity in heartland malls and local shopping have decentralised retailing both for locals and for some tourists. There is also a lot – and I mean a lot – of retail space, more of it empty than before. Rent is high and the economy is doing less well than it has in the past. E-commerce is growing from a low base.
A day visiting Orchard Road quickly makes the point. Mall after mall, all upgraded, all chasing the same tourist spend and all with the same retailers (and French, Korean, Japanese et al pastry shops which have exploded) rather numbs the mind. Yes they differ in design and scale, but the function – and the functions within them – are identical. The REIT phenomena has made venues almost interchangeable and despite the crowds it is hard to take positives across all the malls. Empty space is more obvious (not just on Orchard) and according to reports is at a record high. With high prices and such ‘sameness’ no wonder retailers are struggling. Over shopped, over priced and for Singaporeans better deals ‘over there’.
And it is not only the tourist strip of Orchard Road that has this feel. The newest mall I saw was barely open, but the redeveloped SingPost center in Paya Lebar looked the same as so many others (although it is now twice the size after redevelopment). More locally focused perhaps and stuffed with food and beverage (now 30-50% of most malls) it was new, but in so many ways, old. I fear that this blandness and sameness has reached a tipping point and the vacant spaces are silent testimony to a massive and scary structural problem.
Another small instance of this is the adjacencies in some malls. The two photos below are from Marina Bay Sands (another with gaps) and from Ion Orchard. Fancy a Steinway with your Lego? Or keep your kids quiet with Ferrari junior (why?) while you have your teeth fixed? I am not sure I see the thinking here.
In my entire visit I only found one shop example that fought against the blandness. In Ion Orchard, I came across Samsara by Gentle Monster. Now I am not the target market, being neither on trend nor Korean influenced, but Gentle Monster did make me stop and look. Is at a shop or an art installation?
Gentle Monster is a Korean designer sunglasses business which has grown rapidly in the last few years. Its reputation is of generating quirky flagship stores and a celebrity following. Singapore is the latest Asian store but there are stockists in Europe (Harvey Nichols in London). Supposedly based around Nietzsche’s “Thus spoke Zarathustra”, the Singapore store is a bizarre (my term) set of ‘rooms’ with moving art installations (see montage below) and sunglasses in showcases. It is quite a lot of space for a few sunglasses and I wonder about sales vs costs, but it certainly is a flagship statement. The staff were engaging and wanting people to explore the store and seemed pleased to show it off. Their current website has a good explanation of the thinking behind the store and the displays in motion.
Experience and experimental retailing has been often claimed as the way forward and Singapore malls have space in spades to play with. But can this experience be made to pay, consistently? Gentle Monster is an interesting one-off but will it go stale quickly or will imitations make it lose its difference? Either way, there is going to have to be a lot more innovation and smart thinking to sort out the space and demand equation in many malls in Singapore (and elsewhere).