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Commentary: Will Jewel Changi Airport sound the death knell for Orchard Road?

As Singaporeans and tourists flock to the futuristic shopping mall at the airport, the country’s original shopping belt might just be losing even more of its lustre, says Karen Tee.

Commentary: Will Jewel Changi Airport sound the death knell for Orchard Road?

The 135,700 sqm complex was built on the site of the former Terminal 1 open air carpark. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

SINGAPORE: Since Jewel Changi Airport opened last week, my social media and news feed - and no doubt that of just about every person in Singapore - has been flooded with images of its by-now iconic rain vortex.

It seems all the early birds are rushing to be among the first few million to take a selfie with it. For sure, the photogenic 40m tall waterfall cascading down an oculus in the sky, surrounded by lush greenery, is certainly a sight to behold.

It is great that Singapore holds bragging rights to a remarkable attraction that raises the stakes of what a shopping mall is supposed to look like. After all, malls are often the most normcore and ubiquitous of destinations.


It is rare that a shopping mall makes headlines, but having a record breaking, ultra-expensive man-made waterfall within its premises certainly adds to the hype. Built at a cost of S$1.7 billion, this 10-storey mega mall is arguably the world’s most impressive airport attraction, at least until some other destination comes up with something else.

For now, the tactic of using a blockbuster sight to draw spenders seems to be working. Over the long Easter weekend, there were numerous reports of hours-long waits at some F&B outlets, such as American burger joint Shake Shack and fast food outlet A&W.

Shops like the Pokemon Centre, the first merchandise store outside Japan, are also said to be doing brisk business.


But there have also been comments that cut to the bone, particularly those highlighting Orchard Road’s shortcomings in comparison to this new, shiny Jewel. 

The general sentiment is that staid Orchard Road stands little chance in holding its own and attracting shoppers now that Singaporeans are flocking to the new mega-mall in the country.

It is undeniable that Orchard Road has seen better days. As with many brick-and-mortar shopping districts around the world, Singapore’s original shopping destination has been hit hard by the rise of e-commerce. Vacancy rates have been rising for a number of years and footfall decreasing, leading to a perceptible loss of buzz in the area.

A woman passes closed shops in a section of a mall in Singapore. (File photo: Reuters/Edgar Su) READ: Commentary: The death of the department store and a dwindling middle class As someone who has fond memories of trawling the tiny indie boutiques at youth hangouts like Far East Plaza and The Heeren and spending hours in Tower Records, I truly miss the quirky and unique spirit of this bygone era.

High rental rates too have left smaller companies with no choice but to fold or move out of the precinct. 

This has created an unfortunate situation where many of the Orchard Road malls are close replicas of each other, with the same old mass-fashion brands or designer boutiques found in just about every shopping centre along this stretch.

Plus, many shoppers these days prefer to visit conveniently located suburban malls for their H&M, Uniqlo or Charles & Keith fix, so there is really no need to travel all the way to the city centre. 

READ: The millennial, the biggest customer Singapore retail cannot ignore, a commentary

And now, there’s a sparkling Jewel that is expected to draw between 40 and 50 million visitors during its first year.

According to a New York Times article, about 60 per cent of its footfall is expected to come from local residents. As more locals flock to Jewel, is this yet another nail in Orchard Road’s coffin?


Still, the shopping district is not about to go down without a fight. There is a master plan to transform Orchard Road into a “must-visit” lifestyle destination. 

Some of its highlights include creating car-free stretches, improving pedestrian connectivity and rejuvenating the “orchard” aspect of the retail belt by planting a green corridor.

An artist's impression of a family-friendly play area at Dhoby Ghaut Green (Image: NParks)

These plans are well and good for refreshing the somewhat dated look of this retail stretch. But as a self-processed champion shopaholic - I love browsing shops and almost always schedule at least one full day of shopping in any city that I visit - something is missing here.

When I visit an overseas shopping precinct, like Tokyo’s Omotesando, Los Angeles’ Melrose Avenue or London’s Soho, I am not looking for car-free roads, pedestrian crossings or even relaxing greenery (although these are nice bonuses).

At the end of the day, what I want are cool shops with unique concepts I cannot find anywhere else that will make it worth my while to physically step into a mall or boutique.

I enjoy soaking in the unique character of the place and that makes me want to buy things to preserve my memories of my visit. 

At buzzy streetwear brand Supreme’s store in London which draws a line of shoppers daily, it is always fun to check out the latest fashion trends that hip, young Londoners are adopting. 

Shoppers throng Oxford street during the final weekend of shopping before Christmas in London on Dec 20, 2014. (REUTERS/Luke MacGregor/Files)

In Omotesando, there is always an element of “discovery” in wandering its tiny side streets where boutiques and cafes are interspersed among residential units.

Unfortunately, it is currently hard to say what makes Orchard Road stand out in Singapore’s current landscape, much less against global competition.

READ: Singapore retail needs to aggressively embrace e-commerce. a commentary

Admittedly, there has been some improvement in the retail mix in recent times, such as the launch of Design Orchard which stocks fashion, beauty and lifestyle products by local designers. 

Some brands with boutiques in Orchard Road, such as South Korean eyewear brand Gentle Monster has unique art installations to offer shoppers an experience beyond the mere transactional nature of exchanging money for goods.

Singapore brands like clothing label In Good Company and stationery store Bynd Artisan, both located in Ion Orchard, offer unique in-store experiences like an excellent cafe in the former and made-to-order notebooks in the latter.

The most hardcore shopaholics will know that there are gems to uncover. SocietyA, a boutique in Takashimaya Shopping Centre, offers an expertly curated range of clothing by Asian designers. At multi-label designer accessory boutique On Pedder on Scotts Square, there are designs in unique colourways that cannot be bought elsewhere.

The prime district area around Singapore's Orchard Road, with hotels, shopping mall and residential housing. (Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman)

But are these small, incremental changes by individual retailers enough to draw the crowds?

Judging by retail trends and shoppers’ preferences for immersive experiences -  big, bold Jewel and Marina Bay Sands are cases in point - what seems to be superficial updates to Orchard Road might just be too little, too late.

Short of building a billion-dollar architectural marvel to attract eyeballs, it looks like other stakeholders, like the malls and a critical mass of retailers should be doing some heavy lifting by innovating and implementing newer and better shopping concepts that will get people excited about shopping in Orchard once again.

Karen Tee is a freelance travel and lifestyle writer. Six years ago, people thought she was crazy to leave the security of her full-time job. Today, most want to know how she does it. 

Source: CNA/sl


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