SINGAPORE: Even as experts suggest having more differentiation in malls to boost the local shopping scene amid slowing sales, retail centres which depart from the cookie-cutter model are also facing challenges.
When The Cathay reopened in 2006 after a six-year hiatus and S$100 million refurbishment, it set itself apart from other malls by having tenants that were targeted at the mature crowd. Some of the popular names at that time included American-themed restaurant Billy Bombers and golf equipment retailer TaylorMade.
But 10 years on, it appears to have suffered as much as other, more generic malls amid the sector-wide decline in consumer spending. Although the mall has expanded its scope, targeting a much younger crowd, empty shopfronts, shuttered units and dwindling crowds are a common sight.
With popular brands such as ice-cream company Ben and Jerry's and music retailer Gramophone calling it quits in recent years, mall tenants confirm that retail sales have been sluggish.
Some of the mall’s units were behind hoardings and remained shuttered.
SALES ON THE DECLINE SINCE 2013: TENANTS
Rana, a store that sells ladies’ clothes and accessories, told Channel NewsAsia that it has seen retail sales dip by up to 40 per cent since 2013.
“The crowds have thinned out since three years ago. Partly maybe it’s due to purchasing power – consumers don’t really spend much on buying goods. There are also many empty shops here. People come here to shop, but if they don’t see a lot of shops, then what is the point of coming?” asked Ms Li Hua Nam, Rana’s marketing manager.
At Totally Hot Stuff, a store that sells gadgets and gifts, slower sales are also a problem. The store, which has been at The Cathay for seven years, has registered a drop in sales by about 30 to 40 per cent since 2013.
“Business was quite buzzing in the initial stage. But I think trends have evolved – more people are buying things online,” said its business manager Luke Chong, adding that the stretches of vacant units in themselves could also be a reason for slower sales.
“With more variety of goods and services, we will probably attract more people. In the past, when we still had Ben and Jerry’s, we did see spillover crowds. But with fewer tenants now, we do not have these crowds,” he said.
The mall, which was formerly known as the Cathay Building, now houses about 40 retail outlets, ranging from fashion to entertainment, specifically targeting the youth demographic.
A spokesperson from Cathay Organisation, which manages the mall, told Channel NewsAsia that it positions itself as a lifestyle and entertainment hub for the young and creative, as well as placing a significant emphasis on its tenant mix.
“Over the past 10 years, we’ve noticed a gradual shift in the retail and urban landscape, especially with the establishment of art schools and universities around the area. Hence, we have taken steps to ensure that the mall’s positioning evolves with changing times to meet these new demands."
The management stopped short of revealing the mall’s occupancy rate.
“It is committed to ensuring that consumers do not get a generic or cookie-cutter mall experience at The Cathay,” said the spokesperson. The mall is also looking forward to unveiling new and exciting tenants in the near future, the spokesperson added.
But even as the mall positions itself as a unique proposition, dwindling crowds are a reality.
“Most of us come here to just watch a movie or have lunch. We don’t really come here to shop, because the variety of clothes is quite limited and the price range is quite out of the league of normal students,” said Zoie Chia, a 21-year-old student.
“I don’t find that there are many things available here, aside from the movies. I have a feeling that when I enter the mall it’s actually quite empty and there is not much stuff to shop for,” said Xu Long Xiang, a 23-year-old student.
'MALLS SHOULD GO BEYOND LEASING SHOPS': RETAIL EXPERTS
Retail experts say shopping malls such as The Cathay have to come up with activities to engage its target audience, as it is not just about finding the “right tenants”.
“If you have a building and fill it with ‘young shops’ and you call that a mall that caters to the youth, I think that is only scratching the surface. Because if you do it like that, then only when I'm hungry, I'll hang out there because I need to eat,” said Adjunct Associate Professor Lynda Wee of Nanyang Technological University's Nanyang Business School. “Malls should go beyond just leasing shops and they have to understand their target audience’s lifestyle.”
Her views were echoed by Singapore Polytechnic marketing retail lecturer Amos Tan, who said that consumer preferences have changed.
“Consumers today don't just buy things. They want an experience, they consistently want to be engaged, they want surprises, and it has to be in the form of a holistic experience,” he said.
“The mall itself has to be very proactive, they have to think of different ways and concurrently hold events at shopping centres that are relevant to the lifestyle of their target audience.”
Amid the gloomy economic outlook and strong competition from e-commerce, however, retail experts pointed out that the non-cookie-cutter route – designing a tailored tenant mix for a specific consumer group – could still be relevant in Singapore’s retail scene.
“There is a need to go out to socialise and hang out. But where do you go? You will go to places where like-minded people hang out. So if a place understands my lifestyle, then I don't even have to think of where to go; naturally I know where to go,” said Assoc Prof Wee.
But ultimately, Mr Chong said the responsibility is on tenants to keep adapting to changing consumer needs in order to stay in the game.
“The retail scene is more competitive than before as customers have more choices. Given some strong competitors in the market, we need to step up on our services, be more creative and reach out to the customers. The onus is on the brand owners to market their own business,” he said.