Big change for John Little staff as last outlet is shut

Mr Toh, one of John Little's longest-serving staff, now works at the Raffles City branch of Robinsons department store, which is under the same management group. With 35 years of service in John Little, he has many fond memories there, among which are the buzz and energy that came with the sales.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Mr Jonathan Toh has seen his workplace shrink from being an old giant in Singapore's retail space to becoming a modern pop-up store.

The last John Little outlet, in Plaza Singapura, that closed on Jan 2 is a far cry from the one the 52-year-old remembers working at, fresh out of secondary school, a lifetime ago.

Mr Toh - one of John Little's longest-serving staff, with 35 years of service - recalled the fond memories in an interview with The Straits Times.

John Little in Plaza Singapura took up the whole of the fourth storey when it opened in 1979. When he joined a few years later, it was popular for its mid-priced merchandise like furniture and curtains, he said.

Mr Toh said he thoroughly enjoyed the sales that were held by the store at its old Specialists' Shopping Centre outlet.

He relished the buzz and energy that came with the sales.

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"It was very busy. Customers would wait outside before we opened, and rush in. But that's what I liked."

John Little, which has a 175-year history in Singapore, may be gone as a department store but will continue to operate through pop-up stores.

Of the 33 staff who worked at the Plaza Singapura outlet, about half have been redeployed within the group.

Other than the Plaza Singapura and Specialists' Shopping Centre outlets, Mr Toh worked at the Marina Square branch until 2015, when it closed.

He now works at the Raffles City branch of Robinsons department store, which is under the same group that manages John Little.

Mr Toh finds that customers now are different from those decades ago.

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"Now, they are more interested in quality than price. They also do a lot of research... and ask many questions," he said.

Another thing that is different now is the amount of service offered by salesmen.

When Mr Toh started out, he was a contractor, electrician and salesman rolled into one.

After a customer put a deposit down for an item, he would personally visit the customer's home to take measurements, much like a contractor.

As an employee in the store's home department, he even had to learn how lighting wires worked.

Whatever his role was, Mr Toh always catered to the needs of his customers, building a loyal base, and even won a national award, the Excellent Service Award (Silver).

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

For the staff, John Little was also a haven.

Employees had their own pantry, and the luxury of having meal breaks within the store.

Said Mr Toh: "We had an auntie selling economical rice beside the pantry. Food was so cheap then; it cost only $2.50. She would also give us coffee and tea from a kettle."

Their lunch breaks would sometimes be accompanied by tunes from a guitar played by a colleague.

He also recalled Christmas parties within the store itself, with wares pushed aside to make way for fun.

And just downstairs was Japanese department store and supermarket Yaohan, where Mr Toh and his colleagues would buy snacks from.

While the John Little department store may have closed, a piece of it has lived in Mr Toh's home for the past 10 years - a lounge chair he took a fancy to and bought.

Less tangible are the friendships that he has built and kept with his close-knit teams while working there.

Last month, 40 of them made a day trip to Malacca.

"It was nice, we were talking and laughing. And eating, of course," he said.

Photo: The Straits Times

Sales were 'worth the wait'

Long-time customers recall their trips to John Little with a sense of nostalgia.

Mrs Rukmani Gunasegaram, 69, still remembers her trips to John Little's Specialists' Shopping Centre branch in the 1980s.

The housewife said she would spend about four leisurely hours shopping at the department store, which shuttered its final outlet here last month.

"I went there often, twice a week sometimes. I used to get my pots and pans there. I still have them, and they still shine," she said.

Similarly, she has decorative porcelain tiles from the store that are still displayed in her kitchen, and she even remembers that they cost her just $1.50 apiece.

"People who come to my home still ask me where I got them. They still look as good as new," she said.

Madam Christina Lim, 57, who works in the hospitality industry as vice-president of sales and marketing, said that she would visit the store frequently during sales periods.

"So crowded but worth the wait and crush. You were assured it was a genuine sale. You could get great deals - anything from 50 per cent to 70 per cent," she said.

This article was first published on February 13, 2017. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.