SINGAPORE: I woke up the morning of Oct 30 to ominous “pings” of text messages announcing the closure of the 162-year old iconic department store, Robinsons.
As I read the news that Robinsons will be shutting its stores at The Heeren and Raffles City, like many Singaporeans, I had mixed feelings of nostalgia and the inevitability about the future of department stores in Singapore and globally.
The writing was already on the wall since the 1990s and 2000s when we saw the first wave of Japanese and European department stores such as Sogo, Daimaru, Galleries Lafayette, Printemps and Lane Crawford exiting Singapore.
This was followed by the closure of John Little’s last outlet in Plaza Singapura in 2016, as well as the shutting of Isetan’s store at Jurong’s Westgate mall and the Robinsons store at Jem earlier this year.
The retail body count continues to increase globally especially for the once-dominant department store format.
According to GlobalData Retail, more than 190,000 stores accounting for nearly 50 per cent of retail square footage in the US have closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis.
Many of these retail stores, which sell mostly non-essential items, may never reopen. Some of the established department store chains such as Neiman Marcus and JC Penney have filed for bankruptcy.
Nordstrom’s and Macy’s are restructuring and raising capital to stay afloat and be relevant.
In Singapore, the environment looks equally challenging for established players such as Metro, Tangs, OG, BHG, Takashimaya and Isetan.
Some of the retail players such as Marks and Spencer may continue to operate profitably by improving operational efficiency, merchandising and inventory management, while others, such as Metro, have diversified into property investment.
Even then, recent news reports show Metro Holdings’ revenue plunged 71.5 per cent and the increase in share of profits was buoyed by contributions from a residential project.
PERMANENT SHIFTS IN LIFESTYLES AND AN ISOLATION ECONOMY
While many observers agree that this trend has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, there are a multitude of business and competitive factors including permanent shifts in buyer behaviour and lifestyles that do not augur well for department stores.
Danny Lim, Robinsons’ senior general manager, told media that changing retail trends were due to the rise of e-commerce, cost pressures and lower demand for department stores.
He added that the department store model is outdated and the pandemic has only deepened the challenges department stores face.
Some experts have also observed that Robinsons may have alienated many of its regular customers after its rebranding and repositioning to become more upmarket and exclusive when the Al Futtaim group took over its operations.
Additionally, some of the new brands that were introduced to the stores in Singapore did not appeal to locals.
This reminded me of the branding and merchandising mistakes Galleries Lafayette and Lane Crawford made when they opened department stores in Singapore as they introduced upmarket and expensive European brands that didn’t appeal to their clientele.
The biggest sledgehammer however has been the popularity of online shopping. Shoppers can purchase their favourite high-end and mass market brands from e-commerce marketplaces such as Lazada, Shopee and Amazon as well as directly from the brands’ websites.
The sheer variety and assortment of merchandise and competitive prices available online anytime, has made online shopping the preferred option for shoppers, especially the younger, digitally-savvy demographic.
Designer brands such as Gucci, Prada, Louis Vuitton and Chanel that used to retail their products in upmarket department stores have gone direct by opening flagship luxury boutiques offering personal shopping assistance and customisation, and through their direct-to-consumer (DTC) channels such as their immersive and interactive websites and mobile apps.
For example, Louis Vuitton is now offering live streaming shopping in certain markets.
This trend has been evident since the 2000s as luxury labels have been expanding their retail footprint and competing with department stores in premium shopping locations.
Therefore, department stores’ share of luxury retailing has been gradually declining, exacerbated by the presence of many online retailers and discounters as well.
While department stores have responded by bringing in new premium brands and increasing the selection of private labels, the impact on sales has been limited.
This has made departments stores less desirable as a destination for designer brands.
Also, the trend toward what some experts call the Isolation Economy is gathering momentum as more and more people get used to the convenience of consuming products and services in the comfort and safety of their homes.
The pandemic has also forced many to work from home and avoid crowded shopping malls and department stores due to infection risks.
The Isolation Economy has fuelled demand for not only online shopping but also e-learning, telemedicine, gaming, entertainment streaming such as Netflix and Spotify, and the growing popularity of “shoppertainment” such as Taobao live streaming, which combine e-commerce with entertainment.
Analysts believe that this trend is likely to continue after the pandemic ends as consumers who have experienced the value, variety, convenience and safety of consuming services and shopping from home may be less reluctant to return to physical or recreational shopping.
LOCATION, LOCATION AND LOCATION
The famous maxim for the success of a retailer – location, location and location – may be less relevant, even for department stores that have historically preferred to locate in prime districts as anchor tenants in busy shopping malls.
The increasing retail footprint of luxury boutiques, mass branded chain stores that now appear in malls in the suburbs too and the popularity of online shopping have further diluted the strategic importance of having your store situated in prime locations to capture footfall.
With the rising popularity and convenience of e-commerce and voice commerce - shopping assisted by digital assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri - in the future, paying high rentals for stores in premium shopping locations such as Orchard Road may not make commercial sense even if these locations still attract high pedestrian traffic.
The high operating costs and difficulty of attracting and retaining good retail talent is making it very difficult for department stores to be financially viable and, at the same time, deliver high standards of service quality and shopper experiences.
Robinsons and Isetan who have adopted the location-based strategy of competitive saturation by opening more than one store in high-traffic locations such as Orchard Road may no longer be viable due to the high rentals, accessibility of suburban shopping malls, and the fact that department stores are no longer seen as destination stores.
CAN OMNICHANNEL RETAILING SAVE THE DEPARTMENT STORE?
From Robinsons' experience, the attempt to go omni-channel – which is a combination of brick and mortar, e-commerce and mobile platforms - to attract younger shoppers, including the annual Black Friday sale, to provide variety, value and convenience was eroded by competition from online retailers and brands’ director-to-consumer (DTC) channels.
I also believe that Robinsons was relatively late in the game of omni-channel retailing so its brand value among online shoppers – mostly younger and digitally-savvy shoppers – was not as strong as the likes of ASOS and Lazada who have been around longer.
This means that department stores will continue to face challenges even if they embrace digital transformation and omni-channel retailing at this stage.
Ultimately, success and sustainability will depend upon whether shoppers still value the touch-and-feel, personalised shopping experiences with the ambience that upscale department stores provide.
However, evidence from shopping trends and behaviour in Singapore and globally seem to indicate otherwise. If so, this might indeed mean the end of a one-stop-shop like the department store.
And if that comes to pass, we may need to reinvent ways to still have the ability to go out to shop, during festive seasons.
One option is to have these big name shops replaced by festival markets and pop-up stores at shopping belts or community areas.
As a shopper, I certainly hope department stores will continue to be part of Singapore’s retail scene providing immersive and social experiences that online shopping cannot replace.
Dr Prem Shamdasani, Associate Professor of Marketing and Academic Director, The NUS Executive MBA, National University of Singapore.The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not represent the views and opinions of NUS.