SINGAPORE: When Robinsons announced its closure on Oct 30, the strong public emotions that followed took some by surprise.
Throngs of middle-aged and elderly shoppers gathered for a final send-off. Snaking queues wound in front of the mall. The crowd trawled half-empty shelves while staff was simultaneously packing products away in cardboard boxes.
Some even made a last dash for items such a bonsai plants. It was a bizarre scene.
This was the sort of loyalty one might expect with a popular brand like Apple, certainly not a 162-year-old department store that has been in terminal decline for years.
Why did the closing of Robinson elicit such a strong emotional response?
Was this simply the tip of the iceberg, as COVID-19 continues to obliterate vestiges of the world as we know it, and propel us into the future?
Or do department stores such as Robinsons represent a fragment of our nation’s collective memories?
Perhaps the explanation lies in the bittersweet combination of both.
A TIME WHEN SHOPPING WAS SPECIAL
One might say that the closure of Robinsons should come as no surprise. With more shoppers shifting to specialty stores, independent labels and e-commerce, department stores have been steadily losing their place in our modern world.
But those of us who are old enough will remember a time when they were at the forefront of the retail experience.
As a child in the late-80s and early-90s, I remember department stores as treasure troves of glittering items. From toys to accessories, there was a surprise behind every turn.
One of my fondest childhood memories is winning a S$100 voucher at the spin-to-win draw of Yaohan, a now defunct department store. It was a Willy Wonka moment for me.
Although I can no longer remember what I bought, I cannot forget my sense of euphoria to this day.
Those were the heydays of department stores. As the anchor tenant of the entire mall, many department stores were in fact synonymous with the mall itself.
They were also the first place my family, and so many others, would go to shop for everything from electronics to everyday comestibles.
I remember loitering around while my father picked up gifts and groceries, mesmerised by the sheer variety of colourful knick knacks.
The best department stores brought cutting-edge experiences and affordable luxury to the masses. They stood apart from neighbourhood stores and transformed our shopping experience.
Like a scene from Breakfast At Tiffany’s, they were beacons with bright lights, dazzling windows, gorgeous displays, glass escalators, and enticing jewellery and beauty counters.
Growing bigger and bigger each year, they became one-stop shops. There was nothing you could not find at a major department store – from baby wear to hardware, cheap greeting cards to the finest Moët & Chandon champagne.
So many of us would have bought date dresses, wedding shoes or prom night accessories at a major department store.
It wasn’t just about what these places sold. They evolved to become destinations onto themselves.
Robinsons, Yaohan, SOGO, Dairmaru, John Little – we had a favourite haunt where we spent hours with friends, family and lovers. All these are now lost to the winds of change.
With the nicest toilets, rest areas and play areas, they appealed to families and became an important part of many weekend rituals.
The old Yaohan at Plaza Singapura even had a children’s play centre where trained baby-sitters watched toddlers while parents shopped in peace.
No festive season was complete without a trip to our favourite department stores.
This was where most of us went for last minute Christmas gifts and new Chinese New Year clothes, as giddy festive tunes played on loop.
Festive occasions came to life along these aisles. Every inch of the sprawling space would be covered with glimmering lights, festive decorations, creative window displays and moving props.
Sometimes, Santa or popular festive characters might even delight children with an appearance for photos.
VIRTUAL SHOPPING IS SOLITARY
Over the years, consumer habits have evolved rapidly, and these experiences have lost much of their lustre. Struggling to adapt and “keep the magic alive”, many department stores have periodically hosted performances, fashion shows and exhibitions to generate buzz.
Robinsons, for instance launched a heritage shop in conjunction with National Museum of Singapore and National Heritage Board exhibiting vintage artefacts such as bicycles and tea sets.
It also retailed merchandise inspired by the original store at Raffles Place founded in the 1858, including porcelain umbrellas.
Consumer response has been lukewarm. And eventually, the pandemic, circuit breaker, and new social distancing rules cancelled out any upturn these initiatives may have brought.
This accelerated the decline of brick-and-mortar stores such Robinsons, only to be rapidly replaced by a surge of online shopping options.
Words like “same-day delivery”, “augmented reality” and “chat bots” have quickly come to replace the social experience, gathering space, and family memories that department stores used to represent.
There are, of course, advantages. E-commerce has levelled the playing field for smaller brands and specialty retailers to compete with retail giants.
And in fact, many consumers today are moving towards artisanal brands, small batch products and independent designers.
Artificial intelligence has also created a more personalised, automated and efficient shopping experience; saving time for consumers and creating extra value for retailers.
However, online shopping is more solitary and private than before. And a large part of the social experience has been lost – gathering and shopping with family and friends, interacting with counter assistants, the sensorial and tactile experience of touching and sampling products, and making a field day out of a shopping trip.
The festive ambience of department stores such as Robinsons is also slowly fading.
Of course, there is no holding back the tides of change as Orchard Road undergoes an inevitable transformation. And in many ways, I am thrilled to see what this change might bring.
That said, while some old retail icons still stand on Orchard Road, I am taking my family so we can soak in the festive ambience, pick up some Christmas mementos and make memories.
Memories that navigating the world of multiple browsers and endless pop-ups can never yield.
Annie Tan is a freelance writer, and soon-to-be mother of two.