Not much is written about Singapore retail in this part of the world, but according to Retail Times’ VM and brand delivery specialist Karl McKeever, brand director of retail consultancy Visual Thinking, it’s certainly worth taking a look. In stark contrast to Western Europe and the USA, Singapore retail is booming and it’s all about growth, growth and more growth!
Singapore is a country made up of 63 islands, officially known as the Republic of Singapore. After the British took sovereignty of the island in 1824, it became a British Straits Settlement in 1826, until 1959 when it became internally self-governing. It united with other former British territories and formed Malaysia in 1963 and became a fully independent state when it separated from Malaysia. Since then its economy has boomed and it’s now one of the Asian Tiger economies.
The economy relies on its industry and service sectors, with retail and hospitality being a significant part of the mix. Singapore holds an impressive list of economic ‘world’ titles. It’s one of the leading financial centres, has the second biggest casino gambling market, boasts a top three position in oil refining, and its port, The Port of Singapore, is one of the five busiest international shipping hubs in the world.
It’s home to 5 million people, with most being Chinese, Malay or of Indian descent, but a fast growing expat and international business community is making this figure rise fast. To paint the picture, Singapore boasts more US dollar millionaire households per capita than anywhere else in the world. These factors, and the fact that The World Bank claims Singapore as the world’s easiest place to do business, helps make it one of the most affluent places on Earth – great news for the nation’s retailers.
Alongside ‘eating’, shopping is considered the Island’s national past time. Ranging from hi-tech products to designer wear, there is something for everyone. Browsing around local markets in the ethnic enclaves to the glitzy portals of Orchard Road and Marina Bay, the experiences are wide, varied and exciting.
Orchard Road is the ‘traditional retail heart’ of Singapore. Packed with modern malls and hotels, this stretch is transformed into a dazzling display of lights with architectural lighting schemes at night. Fabulous knick knacks and other memorable finds are also found in Chinatown, Arab Street, Little India and the suburban areas like Holland Village, Katong and Tampines. Unlike most Western countries, shopping hours usually start from late morning to 21:30 or 22:00 at night, and these can extend to as late as midnight during festival seasons.
Similar to London’s Oxford Street, this bustling boulevard was named after the nutmeg and pepper plantations that previously lined the area in the 1800s. The retail and leisure offer here is impressive. The street plays host to leading international brands, department stores, local chain boutiques, restaurants and cafes. It’s possible to spend a whole day here.
Shopping malls and centres are stocked with practically everything under the sun from apparel and footwear, consumer electronics, local and international fashion labels and housewares. The skyline on Orchard is constantly changing and one of renewal. New malls routinely sprout up and older property is regularly spruced up to keep pace.
One of the most recent and architecturally impressive malls on Orchard is known as ION Orchard.
ION Orchard is a stylish, architectural wonder. The building glows like a futuristic beacon at the end of Orchard Road (think London Westfield, meets Selfridges in Birmingham’s Bull Ring). This is without doubt Singapore’s most glamorous shopping complex. Retail is arranged over seven floors, with each leading to a range of ‘themed’ brand areas, luxury, mid-market, local brands etc. Services include butler-style concierge and a celebrity chef fine dining establishment from Wolfgang Puck.
Luxury brands include flagship stores from Dior, Louis Vuitton, Harry Winston, Miu Miu, Cartier, Prada and YSL.
Knightsbridge Mall forms part of the trend-setting Grand Park Orchard Hotel. The mall has a cutting edge design allowing retail outlets to completely customise their space via double façade frontages and direct street access. Flagship stores dominate this four level shopping centre, which focuses solely on fashion and jewellers.
The most recent stores include large outlets for Topshop and Topman, and the biggest retail buzz in Singapore right now, is the soon to open (November 2011) Abercrombie & Fitch, which has secured a landmark position. This will be the first branch in Singapore, and one of only a few Asian outposts for the brand.
Almost opposite Knightsbridge Mall is Grange Road. Ordinarily, this address would not draw much attention. However in September this year, H&M opened its first store in Singapore within the Orchard Building. This was probably one of the best retail branch launches I have attended. With a brilliantly executed local advertising campaign on street, the underground, local parks etc., H&M launched on 03.09.11 with great impact. Queues formed outside the store for four days and entrance was subject to rigorous crowd control. With a combination of excitement, pent up demand and sheer curiosity, H&M showed its fast fashion and VM credentials to great aplomb. Sales over the opening weekend beat all expectations, I am reliably informed.
There are several department stores on Orchard including three branches of Marks and Spencer (compact stores). These are undoubtedly popular with locals and expats alike. Signature, biscuits, confectionary and lingerie literally fly off the shelves! Robinsons & Co. has a store here, which along with it’s bigger store in the Raffle’s Mall, is in my view, ready for a facelift as both look a little worn. However, the biggest department store treat is reserved for Tangs.
Tangs is one of the oldest department stores, which first opened in 1932. With its distinctive Chinese designed exterior (WOW!), Tangs has evolved into a modern Asian lifestyle store that has popularity with international visitors. Its beauty hall stocks famous brands and homewares comprising Asian collectibles and gifts, and decorative items appeal to visitors looking for unique souvenirs to take home. Yes, it’s a little kitsch, and the store has somewhat of a bargain basement feel, but it’s original, authentic and incredibly good at what it does. For me, it makes a welcome contrast to the uber-sophisticated stores elsewhere with its homely charm and bright, colourful interior.
Located in the Central South district, Marina Bay was artificially created through land development in the 1970s. Today, the area is known commercially for its hotels, offices, entertainment and shopping centres. Singapore’s first F1 race was held in the scenic backdrop by the Bay in 2008.
Its breezy promenade strolls, entertainment venues, wide open spaces and lofty hotels, shopping and offices add up to make this area a worthwhile addition to a trip to the Island. With its picturesque skyline, tourists are kept occupied with an endless gamut of international brand stores. Visitors can enjoy ease and comfort moving around Marina Bay at street level, above or underground. Sheltered sidewalks, covered walkways, underground and second-storey links ensure all-weather protection and seamless connectivity between developments and MRT stations. This is really important in a destination with high levels of year round humidity and equatorial temperatures.
When people think of Singapore, the Raffles Hotel comes to mind. The hotel itself needs no introduction, lesser known is The Raffles Hotel Shopping Arcade with its delightful ‘historically set’ leading boutiques from Louis Vuitton and Tiffany & Co etc. It also houses Singapore’s famous bespoke tailor, CYC The Custom Shop producing handmade shirts and suits of the finest quality.
Opposite is the Raffles City Shopping Centre. Designed by world-renowned architect I. M. Pei, the complex also houses two hotels, offices, restaurant outlets and a conference centre. Among its tenants are department store, Robinsons & Co, Mont Blanc, Shanghai Tang, Swarovski, Swatch and the Metropolitan Museum of NY store. Recent additions include Topshop, Kate Spade and a fun Havaianas flip flop shop.
In this area you’ll also find the Funan Digital Life Mall. This mall is now completely dedicated to selling Consumer Electronics. On week nights and weekends it is packed (with mostly men and teenagers!). Every big technology brand has space here, but not as company stores. Mostly this mall is a collection of franchised outlets and independents. The place itself will win no awards for environment design, but it’s the product, which is such a magnet. A large central atrium is used to showcase new product launches and host special events, the recent ‘digital golf’ (Singapore’s biggest national sport!) was a fun and engaging way to get people involved!
With the Chinese forming over 75% of the population, Chinatown is rightly a prominent area in the city. Whilst much has changed over the years, the appeal of the traditional Chinese way of life is preserved in the charming pre-war shops, markets, medicine halls and tea houses.
The best time to visit is during the Lunar New Year, in January or February. One month before the New Year, Chinatown goes into a decorative frenzy of stunning lights and ornaments – a photographer’s delight. Streets are filled with stalls of foodstuffs, clothes, pottery, plants and household items. Another brilliant burst of colours and lights occurs during the Mid-Autumn Festival of the Moon held in September. Streets become festooned with lanterns and locals embark on a buying spree of the seasonal delicacy, ‘mooncakes’.
The irony of Singapore is that for all of its connection to the financial world, you genuinely couldn’t feel further away from recession. There are clearly a lot of big spenders here, and everything is designed to accommodate them. It’s Singapore’s ability not to rest on its laurels that makes it work so well. Yes the retailers are now doing well, but it wasn’t always this way. It has learnt from the bad times and invested in continual renewal and growth. Singapore is investing in visual and service excellence, recognising the fundamental importance of retail and tourism within its economy. A lesson that much of the West could do well to learn.