Goodbye Robinsons: A look at the department store's 160 years in Singapore

Goodbye Robinsons: A look at the department store's 160 years in Singapore

Robinsons store at The Heeren
Robinsons store at The Heeren (Photo: Robinsons)

SINGAPORE: Robinsons announced on Friday (Oct 30) that it will close its last two department stores in Singapore, after more than 160 years in the country.

Robinsons said it has begun the liquidation process for its stores at The Heeren and Raffles City Shopping Centre, following "significant shifts from offline to online spending" among customers and weakened demand exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The company will also close two stores in Malaysia.

Here are some things you may not know about Robinsons:

READ: Robinsons to close last 2 stores in Singapore due to weak demand

ROBINSONS WASN'T ITS ORIGINAL NAME

Originally known as Spicer and Robinson, it was founded in 1858 by Australian immigrant Philip Robinson and former jailkeeper in Singapore James Gaborian Spicer.

The two men opened the business as a “family warehouse” at Commercial Square, now known as Raffles Place, according to an article in the National Library Board (NLB) digital library. 

It initially sold food items such as tea, rice, sugar, oatmeal, biscuits, crackers, cheese and preserved meats, as well as women's hats and dressmaking items.

Robinson changed the name to Robinson and Company after Spicer left the business in 1859 and a new partner, George Rappa, was brought in.

Robinson’s son Stamford Raffles Robinson took over the company after his father’s death in 1886. 

In 1891, the store was moved to its new premises at 26 and 27 Raffles Place, and was registered as a limited liability company in 1920.

It later relocated to a bigger site at Raffles Chambers in 1941, and offered an air-conditioned cafe, hairdressing salons and merchandise such as men and women’s wear, leather goods, confectionery and silverware.

ROYALTY FROM THE REGION AMONG EARLY CUSTOMERS

Robinson had employed salesmen to travel the Malay Archipelago and Borneo to bring in customers, instead of opening stores in the region. 

Soon, aristocrats like the rulers of the Malay Archipelago and King Mongkut of Siam joined a growing list of clientele. 

By 1881, the company had become a popular meeting place for the European community in Singapore.

TWO BOMBINGS AND A MAJOR FIRE 

Bombs hit the building twice during the Japanese invasion but the department store resumed business the next day.

However, it remained closed throughout the Japanese occupation from 1942 to 1945, resuming trade in 1946.

On Nov 21, 1972, a massive fire caused by a short circuit on the ground floor destroyed the Raffles Place building.

The blaze also damaged the roof of neighbouring Overseas Union Bank building and forced the stock exchange to stop trading for the day.

Nine people were killed - eight of whom were trapped in the lifts - and S$21 million worth of property was lost in the fire.

THE EXPANSION IN SINGAPORE AND MALAYSIA

After the fire, Robinsons opened a new store at the Specialists Shopping Centre on Orchard Road on Dec 11, 1972 and added a branch at Clifford Centre in July 1977.

In June 1983, the company moved the main Orchard Road store to The Centrepoint and closed down its Clifford Centre branch in November the same year.

New stores were opened at Raffles City Shopping Centre in 2001 and at JEM in Jurong East in 2013. A new flagship store at The Heeren also opened its doors in November 2013.

Robinsons at The Heeren
Robinsons at The Heeren. (Photo: Robinsons)

It also has two stores in Kuala Lumpur – at The Gardens at Mid Valley mall and The Shoppes at Four Seasons Place.

In 2008, the store’s ownership changed after the United Arab Emirates-based Al Futtaim Group bought 88 per cent of the company’s shares. Al Futtaim Group also operates Marks & Spencer, Zara and Ted Baker in Singapore.

Robinsons closed its The Centrepoint store at the end of its lease in March 2014, after 31 years of being the anchor tenant, and its JEM store in August 2020.

A man walks past a window display of Robinsons retail outlet
A man walks past a window display of Robinsons department store in Singapore. (File photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman)

On Oct 30, 2020, the company announced that it is closing its last two department stores in Singapore over changing retail buying patterns and weak demand made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.

READ: Robinsons to close Jem outlet by the end of August​​​​​​​

ROBINSONS SALES

Since 2018, Robinsons has offered huge discounts for keen shoppers at its Black Friday Sale, a 24-hour shopping event held the day after Thanksgiving in November.

Customers would wait in line for hours before doors would open at the stroke of midnight, hoping to snatch deals with discounts up to 80 per cent across all stores. 

In 2018, the company handed out bottles of chicken essence to early birds in the queue and free coffee from 9am. 


Source: CNA/ga(ta)

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