After 162 Years, Singapore’s Robinsons Department Stores to Shut Down

Tiffany Ap
·3 min read

SHANGHAI — Singapore’s Robinsons department store is shuttering its last two locations at The Heeren and Raffles City, the company announced today, citing “weak demand.” The storied retailer, which once was a favorite haunt of families in the island city-state, had been impacted by the COVID-19 lockdown more recently, but for years had been pressured by competition from online and mall entrants.

Its exit leaves Tang’s, Isetan and Takashimaya for department store shopping in the city, however, the format overall is challenged by mall retailers like Ion, Paragon, Marina Bay Shoppes and even Jewel at Changi. Retail sales for Singapore in August, the latest month for which government data is available, showed a 5.7 percent year-over-year drop. Department stores, though, fared far worse, falling 35.3 percent year-over-year.

“This dual trend has hurt the department store model both in Singapore and globally, and the negative effects of COVID-19 have made its impact more acute,” said Robinsons in the release.

Robinsons was founded in 1858 by Englishmen Philip Robinson and James Gaborian Spicer as a general goods store. Over the years, the business endured the Japanese occupation, including having one of its outlets hit twice by bombs in World War II, and in 1972, a deadly fire that killed nine people.

In 2008, Al-Futtaim Group bought it for $600 million, and in 2013, invested in a large six-story flagship at The Heeren. Although situated on the city’s famed Orchard Road, The Heeren’s location at the end of the strip nearer to Somerset Station was at odds with its upscale branding and quite some distance from the cluster of high-end retail around Wheelock Place that includes the Ion mall and Tang’s. In contrast, The Heeren building sits across from a Victoria’s Secret and near Zara and Forever 21.

“Robinsons was the place to shop for our parents and grandparents, and is such a Singapore institution with a 162-year history,” said Norman Tan, editor in chief of Vogue Singapore. “They started as grocers and hatmakers, and during their prime, were frequented by Malaysian royalty. Robinsons, The Heeren on Orchard Road, was targeted at a younger and more affluent crowd, but in hindsight, it failed to connect with the needs of today’s audiences and didn’t move to e-commerce fast enough.”

“There’s a lot of competitors for a tiny place like Singapore,” commented Jamie QQ Wu, a Singapore-based fashion influencer. “The offer doesn’t differentiate that much. It’s a pretty dated shopping experience so I think Robinsons’ closing is just a natural progression for e-commerce taking over traditional shopping formats.”

“A big part of Singapore life is that people love to go to the mall,” Wu added, “and because there’s enough space, it’s a family outing. Especially on weekends, you’ll see a family of three generations going out to a mall. But with department stores, the space is limited and there’s less food and beverage.”

Lydianne Yap, a Singapore native and luxury expert with the Digital Luxury Group, said, “I think it stopped being an institution after the Al-Futtaim Group took over the business in the country. [Originally], it was midrange. You could find very family-friendly brands. After it changed hands, it skewed to luxury but it never managed to do that very well. It was trying to be something it wasn’t and kind of alienated its old consumer base. People could go to Tang’s if they wanted something upscale.”

“I think everyone saw it coming for a long time, you could see when you walked past Robinsons [The Heeren] on the weekend,” said Yap. “You could tell, considering that there is really a lot of people in that area and that street is usually always packed but nobody would go there.”

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