SINGAPORE: Orchard Road never seems to catch a break.
Whether it’s the sprawl of malls in the heartlands, the opening of Changi Airport Jewel or even complaints from locals about how repetitive and unimaginative the tenant mix across shopping centres can be, this beloved shopping belt has battled countless fresh challenges, yet always seems to find a new way forward.
Recently, however, some small changes suggest the test wrought by COVID-19 may go deeper than we realise and could reshape Singapore retail for good.
PAIN STARTED SINCE DORSCON ORANGE
This latest set of challenges started right after Singapore announced it was raising the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) to Orange in February 2020, with a few retailers curbing opening hours to mitigate infection risks.
Department store OG closed an hour earlier at 8.30pm so employees could head home earlier. Temperature checks, disinfections and mask-wearing were stepped up by store management.
But an OG spokesperson highlighted a decline in footfall with stores becoming very quiet after 7pm. BHG Holdings also reported a 40 to 50 per cent drop in transactions across its six outlets in early February since the first confirmed case on Jan 23.
Takashimaya, which occupies most of Ngee Ann City’s right wing, shortened operations from 11am to 8pm daily.
And then the circuit breaker was pulled. Malls and department stores, not deemed essential service providers, had to shutter almost completely over April to June 2020.
LIFE COMING BACK TO TAKASHIMAYA BUT NOT FULLY
As Singapore gingerly peeled back restrictions, life was breathed back into Orchard Road. Department store Takashimaya reopened for business after Jun 18, 2020, starting with shorter hours from 11am to 8pm daily, subsequently extending these to 10am to 9.30pm on Fridays and Saturdays in Singapore’s Phase 2 in July 2020.
Capitalising on the festive season, Takashimaya stretched weekday opening hours during the Christmas and Chinese New Year periods, to 9.30pm in December 2020 and from Jan 15 to 21, although restrictions on promotional events remained in place.
Curiously, however, as Singapore shifted into Phase 3, allowing dining out for groups of up to eight, Takashimaya opted to revert to shorter hours from 11am to 8pm from Sundays to Thursday, earlier than the shopping mall’s hours of 10am to 9.30pm.
Takashimaya may have more liberty in deciding its opening hours. Unlike most retail tenants with stipulated operating hours in their contracts, Takashimaya department store has closer ties to the mall manager, Toshin Development Singapore, a subsidiary of Takashimaya Group.
Still, this earlier closure of an anchor tenant has seen knock-on effects on foot traffic in the mall. Food and beverage (F&B) outlets find it harder to attract crowds during these unpopular hours.
The few restaurants that retain long, pre-COVID operating hours appeal to designated diners. Imperial Treasure Fine Shanghai Cuisine closes at 11pm daily, Crystal Jade Place at 10.30pm, and Angus House, post-dinner coffee shop Heavenly Wang, Japanese burger chain store Mos Café and dessert house The Dark Gallery closing at 10pm.
AN EFFECTIVE COST CONTAINMENT MEASURE
In many ways, Takashimaya’s decision to shave off 14.5 hours each week made business sense to contain labour and utilities costs when retail demand remains sluggish.
By keeping daily operations to nine hours, retailers can cut down the need to deploy two shifts of employees a day. Under Singapore’s employment rule, contractual work hours should not exceed nine hours for a typical worker hired on a five-day-or-fewer contract.
Shorter operating hours could reduce utilities costs, where the tenant is responsible for the running costs of air-conditioning, lighting and other mechanical and electrical equipment within the departmental store.
The Job Support Scheme (JSS) that co-funds a proportion of the wages of the first S$4,600 gross wages of employed Singaporeans and permanent residents has seen the quantum come down since the circuit breaker lifted.
From 75 per cent, the JSS support level for retailers was reduced to 50 per cent after the circuit breaker ended, then to 30 per cent in September 2020. It stands at 10 per cent now.
Property tax rebates passed on by property owners have dried up.
Although retail rent is expected to fall by a potential further 5 per cent in the first half of 2021, according to Knight Frank, these will eventually bottom out.
Meanwhile, retail balance sheets are coming under strain all around the world, with Takashimaya in Japan reporting an operating loss of 10.8 billion yen (S$130 million), its first since beginning quarterly earnings disclosures in 2002.
Perhaps there was little gained by opening longer hours in the evenings.
Overall, shoppers have not returned to pre-coronavirus levels, with the glaring gap left by international tourists unfilled even as locals stay in Singapore and spend more. The creation of green lanes with a handful of countries has given tourism some breathing space but arrivals have remained less than 5 per cent of pre-coronavirus numbers.
Notably, footfall across selected Orchard Road malls (Ngee Ann City, Paragon, Wisma Atria and Somerset 313) in October 2020 have been relatively lower especially after 9pm during weekdays.
Google’s popular time graphs, which use real-time data to measure average popularity for any given hour relative to peak popularity for the business over a week, show relatively low traffic in these malls after 9pm.
In contrast, average visits to heartland malls, such as Jem, Junction 8 and Jurong Point were relatively higher both on Wednesday and the weekend.
Similar to Takashimaya’s strategy, Tangs department store, the anchor tenant at Tang Plaza, is also operating on shorter hours from 11.30am to 8.30pm daily.
However, other malls along Orchard Road, such as Ion Orchard, Wisma Atria, Paragon and Wheelock Place, are keeping the malls open for a longer duration of 10am to 10pm.
The operating hours of the anchor tenants in these malls are more aligned with the malls’ hours.
For example, Metro Paragon is open from 10am to 9.30pm; Isetan at Wisma Atria, from 11am to 9pm; and Marks & Spencer at Wheelock Place, from 10am to 10pm.
RETAIL SALES MOVING ONLINE
Where cost-cutting is certainly no panacea, perhaps retailers and malls are using shorter hours as a holding pattern while they figure out a stronger strategy to deal with the huge, permanent shifts in consumption accelerated by the pandemic.
Takashimaya has invested in building an online store, as has BHG Singapore. Others like Metro and Marks & Spencer have added storefronts on Lazada.
After all, the outlook for retail could be positive when retail has picked up steadily since shops resumed business after the circuit breaker, with total retail sales in Singapore ending 2020 close to pre-coronavirus levels.
These retailers know most of this recovery went to online retail. The shift away from physical stores to e-commerce continues to show stickiness even after June 2020.
And they may be preparing for the reality that physical retail could remain subdued and track less than 2019 levels if tourism numbers remain in suspended animation.
That outlook, however, is improving as more office workers return to the Central Business District and main shopping belt in greater numbers and frequencies after Monday (Apr 5) and as Singapore's rollout of the vaccination programme gains steam.
For those reasons perhaps, Takashimaya has lengthened its opening hours to 10am to 9.30pm. Perhaps it also knows not keeping up risks losing loyal customers to competing malls.
Professor Sing Tien Foo is Director at the Institute of Real Estate and Urban Studies (IREUS) and Head of Department of Real Estate, National University of Singapore. Sophronia Sia is Research Assistant at the same institute.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not represent the views and opinions of the National University of Singapore or any of its subsidiaries or affiliates.