For many years known as a retailer of educational books or airport reads, home-grown brand Times is changing its image with a new lifestyle bookstore launched last Wednesday at Waterway Point in Punggol.
Times Waterway Point on the second floor of the mall is the seventh and largest store in the Times chain, not counting the airport outlets. The 7,335 sq foot space, leased for three years, carries 15,000 titles in genres from new and classic fiction to cookery books to graphic novels. It sells book-themed totes and action figures as well as high-end stationery.
There are also several shelves of assessment books though housed well outside the dedicated children's books area, which is done to resemble a castle. Families are invited to cross a drawbridge and loll around on ladybird cushions in a green carpeted area. Storytelling sessions are held at least once a month.
There is also a 600 sq ft glass- walled area done up like a celebrity kitchen. Chefs will be invited to give demonstrations next month.
Ms Helen Lek, head of retail group Times Publishing since January last year, hired a visual merchandiser to help with the store design. This comes from her experience as country head for skincare brand Crabtree & Evelyn Singapore and Malaysia, where window displays are essential for drawing consumers in.
"For many retailers, what you sell is what you see. You need to tell a story and that is often lacking in the books industry," the 52-year-old says.
Lifestyle bookstores have had a rocky recent history in Singapore.
Borders at Wheelock Place was king in the early noughties. Part of an American chain known for its reading couches, bistro, and book and music events, it saw falling sales after the 2008 financial crisis. Operated from 2008 by Australian group, REDgroup Retail, it closed down in 2011, the same year design- book-specialist Page One shuttered at VivoCity.
Popular Holdings has three times dipped its toes in the same waters with the short-lived Harris bookstores, which also closed in 2011; Prologue at Ion Orchard (2009-2013) and a five-month-long attempt at resurrecting the Borders brand at Westgate in 2014.
Times used to have eight stores outside airport terminals until 2008. Three were closed when their leases expired and not re-opened because of falling traffic at malls.
Ms Lek, however, is reasonably confident Times Waterway Point will not go that route, though she is the first to say that book sales are not healthy.
She says: "We're in a very, very challenging situation. We have digital media and e-commerce affecting business badly. In a retail business, we are affected by operation costs, rental costs, lack of manpower. If you want to maximise your profits, the book business is not how to do it."
So why open a huge lifestyle bookstore?
Because the mother of a teenager and two 20somethings thinks running bookstores is "like corporate social responsibility".
"A lot of parents today grew up with the Times brand," she says, referring to the brand's 38-year-old history. "We're focusing on their families and children so they can do the same."
Times Waterway Point seems to have taken notes from Borders and other lifestyle stores. Some of the former staff from these bookstores are on board as book buyers.
But, as Ms Lek says, "The easiest thing to copy is design. The difficult thing is execution."
Punggol resident Sharmini T., 27, appreciates the kid-friendly layout and says her two-year-old son enjoys the cushions and colours of the reading area in the "castle". The primary school teacher bought a book for him and a Nicholas Sparks novel for herself. "The selection is better than at Popular. It's good, something for me to look at."
Marketing and public relations professional Jasmin Ismail, 38, plans to take her four children aged three to 11 to the store soon. A resident of Sengkang, she used to frequent the Popular outlet at Compass Point until it closed because of the mall's renovation. She is happy to have a new bookstore nearby and bought a book for a friend's child. "It's different from the usual Times stores and more geared towards kids," she says.
However, her sister Neshah Ismail, 41, says the store could focus more on books and less on lifestyle accessories.
"I like bookstores to have more books. The selection seems to be more towards bestsellers. You're not going to find something unusual. For that, you have to maybe go to a library," she says.
This article was first published on March 15, 2016.
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