What are my memories of Robinsons? Good ones until the last decade or so. We simply grew apart – Robinsons and I. So much so that both can’t recognise each other. Maybe that is akin to what many Singaporeans may feel about the People’s Action Party.
Before the entry of nondescript wannabes which look nothing more than over-decorated and soulless shop spaces, Singaporeans grew up with department stores which actually mean something to them and of which they have fond memories.
My first trip to the then bustling High Street in the 1960s was to Metro. That department store was a highlight for many shoppers who usually went to the street for fashionwear, the Beijing Silk store and the Polar café. High Street was also part of a very busy area that included attractions like Capitol Theatre (where the Magnolia “milk bar” was), Adelphi Hotel, Omar Khayyam restaurant and Thakral emporium.
In other words, one’s memory of Metro alone was particularly rich because of these other places which add up to something larger than just the department store.
CK Tang (now TANGS) had two stores – one in River Valley Road (no more) and the other at Orchard Road (now called Tang Plaza). It added another at Vivo City. I used to go to CK Tang but less so now for a reason similar to why I started boycotting Robinsons in its later karma which I will elaborate later. CK Tang was unusual in that it offered certain art products which I could not find elsewhere and also because there was a nice café on one of its higher levels. So, yes, I did have nice memories of shopping there.
Isetan then made its entry with its distinctively uniformed staff, complete with polite bows and, from my experience, first-class service – something that Robinsons circa 2000s onwards seemed to lack. It’s called no-question-asked and no-excuse-given service. As the Nike logo says, they “just did it”. I still go to Isetan. Great memories and many more to come, I hope.
And there are OG and Chinese Emporium.
OG is still around and has its loyal, mostly heartlander, customers. You can still get household ware priced much cheaper than at the pricey Tang Plaza. It is said that OG girls go there for affordable and not so obiang Mediacorp star dresses and OG aunties invade it for the rice cookers, air fryers and kitchen ware, all within CPF monthly withdrawal allowance budget. These same aunties who have OG loyalty cards also go to Fairprice where they flash their NTUC card and, for some, Pioneer and Merdeka cards. OG will survive, memories or no memories.
Chinese Emporium: I have lost track. It used to be everywhere – Chinatown, Geylang, even Parkway Parade. I patronised its stores at Geyang and Parkway Parade but not after these vanished. I liked the stores. Somewhat haphazard not exactly avant-garde cutting edge shopping but fairly well-stocked. Maybe the Chinese crowd metamorphosed into BHG-ers, with more moolah to throw around. The “emporium” approach today may still work. But operators would have to look for outlying buildings perpetually facing demolition in today’s Singapore. Try Katong Shopping Centre or Tanjong Katong Complex before the wrecker’s ball starts to swing.
And, ah, finally, Robinsons.
It was one of my favourite department stores. I have been to the store in Raffles Place before it was destroyed by a tragic fire. I worked for a short while for an insurance brokers firm at KPM building on Cecil Street just opposite Raffles Place. Robinsons was where I would frequently go to buy shorts, shoes and ties. I liked the prices which, despite being targeted at the office crowd, were affordable. The service was also noteworthy.
That association was strengthened when I switched over to Robinsons at Centrepoint. I continued to get the range of shirts and shoes which did not burn a hole in my pocket. Some of the older staff remembered the regular customers. Even before you opened your mouth, they would know the types of ties which you would normally look for.
Service was almost family like and the prices much within range. Everything was great. Mention Robinsons and we had an image of trust and integrity and quality at affordable prices.
Then something started to happen. Robinsons changed – for the worse.
The department store was going atas. In my opinion, it practically abandoned its loyal customer base and decided to go upmarket, to catch the “tourist market”. The first time I stepped into its flagship store at The Heeren a few years back, I was shocked. One look at the prices was enough. The shirts and shoes were beyond many Singaporeans’ reach.
I spoke to some of the sales staff. None looked happy which was unusual, from my past experience at the older Robinsons. They agreed with me that the store was only interested in a better class of clientele. And they agreed that I was not the only person who had complained about prices. One even suggested I go to another popular store nearby to get a similar shirt which was much more affordable.
I have always had this encounter etched in my mind to compare with the more pleasant ones I had of the older Robinsons.
Of course, Covid-19 has a lot to do with the demise of Robinsons. The company might have made the right pre-virus commercial move to go for the tourist and upper middle class market. There are already so many department stores around. And the Robinsons name has a cache which may yet prove useful in the region, who knows.
I believe, however, that Robinsons forgot its roots in a major commercial and strategic misadventure. It wanted to be bigger which was not a sin. Everyone wants to progress, everyone wants to make money. But it showed clearly it was prepared to shove everything aside to achieve its misguided goal.
Lesson for Robinsons and also for the PAP: Never cast aside the people who have supported you all these years just because you suddenly feel they are no longer crucial to your grandiose plans.
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.