Dept stores go out of fashion with new trends

SINGAPORE - Even as loyal shoppers of Singapore's oldest department store are saddened by the impending closure of John Little's last brick-and-mortar store, retail experts said they saw it coming, as many customers move towards newer shopping concepts.

Department stores are no longer the one-stop-shops they used to be for consumers, thanks to changing tastes and online shopping, retail experts said.

And stores that do not narrow their focus face an uphill battle.

"The all-in-one concept where the whole family can go and shop is no longer the trend.

Now, it's very much about individual boutiques, especially for young people," said Singapore Polytechnic senior retail lecturer Sarah Lim.

At John Little's Plaza Singapura outlet on Monday, lunchtime crowds - many of whom looked to be in their 30s and 40s - thronged the store to take advantage of closing sale discounts of up to 90 per cent, ahead of its last day of operations on Jan 2.

Sales executive Theresa Thng, 43, who has shopped at John Little for over a decade, said its planned revival next year as a pop-up concept brings little comfort. Pop-up stores are temporary retail spaces.

"It won't be the same. I like the wide selection and quality (of John Little now), and being able to get everything in one place," she said.

But for 26-year-old Sharmaine Koh, who was browsing the department store's cosmetics selection, it was her first time stepping into a John Little store and only came for the sale.

Read Also: John Little to close last Singapore store by December

"I don't really shop at department stores. There's a wider selection online and it's easier to find deals there," said Ms Koh, who works in advertising.

Online marketplaces such as Taobao and Amazon have emerged as "a new type of department store", said Singapore Polytechnic marketing and retail lecturer Amos Tan.

"Shopping today is about selling an experience. Retailers need to be very clear and targeted about who they're serving."

High rental and manpower costs and maintaining a large inventory also pose major challenges to large department stores, experts said.

Robinsons Group, which manages John Little, said on Friday that the decision to close the department store after 174 years here was made "after evaluating the relevancy and sustainability of the John Little brick-and-mortar business".

But its return next year in a pop-up format is a good idea, said Singapore Polytechnic's Ms Lim, as John Little can streamline its products while leveraging on the goodwill the brand has created.

A Plaza Singapura spokesman said the mall is in discussions with a number of retailers which have expressed interest to take over the 38,000 sq ft space on the first floor that John Little will vacate.

John Little had eight branches at its peak in 2003, including its flagship store at Specialists' Shopping Centre, which shut in 2007 after more than 20 years.

The impending closure of its last store also comes amid a challenging retail environment.

Estimated retail sales in August excluding cars dropped 6.5 per cent over the same period last year, with declines in most segments, including 3.9 per cent for department stores.

Still, some department stores have been able to sail through the headwinds.

Japanese lifestyle brand Muji, which has 10 outlets here, said business this year is expected to be 7 per cent higher than last year on a same store basis.

A spokesman for Isetan Singapore said sales this year are about the same as last year.

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