Updated: Dec 1, 2020
As we bid adieu to longtime retail giant Robinsons, let's reminisce a wee bit about those once-familiar Japanese, French, Hong Kong alongside local department stores that have since vanished entirely in Singapore:
1. Robinsons (1858-2020)
Being in the business for a staggering 162 years, Robinsons began as a small shop at Raffles Place (formerly Commercial Square), named Spicier and Robinson. Its founders James Gaborian Spicer and Philip Robinson sold everything from European groceries, spices to women’s apparel.
In 1859, the business was renamed Robinsons and Company after James Spicer exited the partnership. By the early 20th century, Robinsons had become the leading upmarket department store in Singapore which catered specially to the European expatriate community.
History-wise, Robinsons and its iconic department store at Raffles Place survived the Great Depression (posting its first ever losses of about $233,000 in 1932), Second World War bombings, the Japanese Occupation (it was closed between 1942 and 1945) and a disastrous fire in 1972 that killed nine people and destroyed a million dollars’ worth of goods.
Robinsons picked itself up after the disaster, expanding to other parts of Singapore. It subsequently opened stores at the Specialist’s Shopping Centre (1972), Clifford Centre (1977-1983) and The Centrepoint (1983-2014). After the company was sold to the Al Futtaim Group, another three stores were opened – Raffles City (2001-2020), JEM (2013-2020) and The Heeren (2013-2020). But they all closed in 2020 due to abysmal market conditions besetting brick and mortar retail, challenges from eCommerce as well as the ravaging Covid-19 pandemic.
Memorable Slogan: “Robinsons Sale – The sale worth waiting for“
2. John Little (1842-2016)
Before Robinsons, John Little was Singapore’s oldest department store. It was started in 1842 when John Martin Little opened his shop at Raffles Place (formerly Commercial Square), selling wine, textile, furniture, stationery and clocks. In 1955, John Little was acquired by Robinsons.
John Little left its iconic Raffles Place store in the sixties, and over the years, went on to open stores at malls in the downtown areas, such as Plaza Singapura and Specialist’s Shopping Centre. It was revamped with a new logo “JL” in the late eighties in order to woo the younger crowds.
John Little expanded into the new towns and suburban areas in the early 2000s - opening outlets at Parkway Parade, Jurong Point, Northpoint and Compass Point. But by 2015, Robinsons’ new owner Al Futtaim Group decided to close all the John Little department stores in Singapore, with the last one at Plaza Singapura having shuttered in November 2016.
3. Yaohan (1974-1997)
Japanese department store Yaohan entered the Singapore market in 1974 with its first branch at Plaza Singapura. Offering a wide range of merchandise, Yaohan also boasted a supermarket, bakery and even a child play centre, a fresh concept that attracted many shoppers in the seventies and eighties.
At its peak, Yaohan had stores at Katong (1977-1983), Thomson Plaza (1979-1998), Bukit Timah (1981-1996), Jurong (1983-1997) and Parkway Parade (1983-1997). But by the late eighties, it faced challenges from other Japanese department stores such as Daimaru. The new mega retail institution Takashimaya which opened at Ngee Ann City in 1993 also brought about changes in consumers’ shopping habits.
Yaohan opened its last store at Marina Square in 1996 in a bid to catch up with rivals, yet a year later, its mother company in Japan was declared insolvent due to mounting losses. In Singapore, its flagship store at Plaza Singapura was closed in 1997. Thomson Yaohan, the remaining one standing, eventually shut down in 1998.
Memorable slogan: “For one-stop family shopping“
4. Daimaru (1983-2003)
Daimaru was another Japanese department chain that had been eyeing the Singapore market for a long time. It was in 1942 during the Second World War when Daimaru set up its first department store in Penang, Malaya. It had a brief presence in Singapore, replacing the ousted John Little at Raffles Place. During the sixties and seventies, it carried out extensive market researches and surveys to ascertain the viability of establishing a branch in Singapore.
Daimaru’s flagship store at Liang Court eventually opened in November 1983. It flourished throughout the eighties, fending off challenges from other large retailers such as Isetan, Metro, Robinsons and Tangs. But entering the late nineties, Damairu was hemorrhaging from consecutive years of losses.
Despite the tough times, Daimaru seemingly won the battle when they took over the space left behind by Yaohan at Plaza Singapura, as the latter had shut down in 1997 due to bankruptcy proceedings. However, Plaza Singapura’s Daimaru did not last for too long either. It stayed opened for six years before being completely winded down due to its Japanese headquarters’ decision to scale back overseas ventures and instead concentrate on domestic operations.
5. Sogo (1986-2000)
Sogo was another Japanese retail giant that had operated a number of department stores in Singapore in the nineties. Back in Japan, it already had a long history, having started off as a kimono shop in 1830. In the eighties and nineties, Sogo expanded to other Asian regions, such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.
Sogo opened its flagship store at Raffles City in 1986, with Singapore’s then Minister for Foreign Affairs Suppiah Dhanabalan invited as the guest of honour to officiate at the opening. The company subsequently opened two more outlets at Paragon and Tampines’ DBS Building.
But in 2000, Sogo ran into real estate investment issues and chalked up huge debts. Several overseas stores had to be closed, including those in Singapore. The 14-year-old Sogo flagship store at Raffles City was replaced by Robinsons, whereas Metro took over Sogo’s former premises at Paragon.
6. Tokyu (1987-1998)
Tokyu joined other Japanese department chains in Singapore by opening its first store at Marina Square in October 1987, where former Finance Minister Dr Richard Hu officiated at the opening.
The Tokyu Department Store aimed to provide customers with an authentically traditional Japanese-style shopping experience, positioning itself as a brand that offered moderately-priced merchandise from Japan, Hong Kong among other Asian countries. By the late eighties, Tokyu had also expanded to Hawaii, Bangkok and Hong Kong.
In 1993, Tokyu closed its Marina Square branch (1987-1993) and relocated to Tampines (1993-1998). By 1998, Tokyu had exited the local market as the group looked to restructure and liquidate their overseas assets due to hefty losses incurred during the 1997/98 financial crisis. In 2014, Tokyu Hands, a sibling unit of the former Tokyu Department Store arrived in Singapore with its maiden lifestyle store opening at Westgate.
7. Seiyu (1998-2008)
Another long gone with the wind Japanese brand was Seiyu, which was established in 1946. Seiyu first appeared locally in 1994 as Seiyu Wing On Department Store, a joint venture with Hong Kong company Wing On. Eventually it bought out the latter, going on to own mega outlets at Bugis Junction, Junction 8 (Bishan) and Lot 1 (Choa Chu Kang).
Singapore’s Seiyu stores were sold to Beijing Hualian Group in 2005 for $4 million, and subsequently renamed BHG. By 2016, BHG was operating seven department stores in Singapore, at locations such as Seletar Mall, Century Square Shopping Centre and Jurong Point. Meanwhile, the Seiyu Group back in Japan was fully acquired by Walmart in 2008.
8. Galeries Lafayette (1982-1996)
Upmarket French department store chain Galeries Lafayette has been finding successes in its business since it opened in 1912. However, these weren't replicated in Singapore. Officially opening at Goldhill Plaza on 7 December 1982, it occupied three storeys and offered many exquisite yet affordable items from Galeries Lafayette’s own brands.
However, the department store lasted merely four years at Goldhill Plaza, throwing in the towel in 1986 after posting $15 million worth of losses. Poor store location, image problems and merchandising difficulties were cited as reasons behind its closure.
However Galeries Lafayette was more than determined to make a comeback. On 28 March 1987, it reopened at Liat Towers (taking over the space previously occupied by Isetan which had since moved to Wisma Atria), striving to claim a stake in the fast growing Orchard Road shopping belt.
But once again, stiff competition and leasing issues eventually saw Galeries Lafayette bowing out of the Singapore market yet again, this time in early 1996.
9. Printemps (1983-1989)
Galeries Lafayette was not the only French department store trying to penetrate the Singapore market. Printemps - a sprawling enterprise that dabbled in lifestyle products, fashion and accessories, had a brief presence at Singapore’s Orchard Road in the eighties. The retail giant was founded in 1865, going global more than a century later with stores in Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan and Singapore.
10. Lane Crawford (1994-1996)
Established Hong Kong retailer Lane Crawford has an illustrious history dating back to 1850. It later expanded to China and Japan but was intermittently devastated by the Second World War. Lane Crawford quickly picked itself up after the war, becoming an upmarket department store that offered jewellery, fashion, furniture and watches.
In June 1994, Lane Crawford debuted at Orchard Road's Lane Crawford Place. Former Minister for Information and The Arts George Yeo was the guest of honour for its official opening.
Singapore, however, underwent a rather severe retail slump in the mid-nineties. Lane Crawford itself was also plagued by internal strife, which saw some of its top management resigning in quick succession. In 1995, the company slashed its store size from five floors to two.
Slightly more than two years after its opening, Lane Crawford closed in October 1996, incurring losses to the tune of $7 million - this including a penalty payment invoked by landlord Marco Polo Development for prematurely terminating its four-year tenancy agreement. Lane Crawford exited the Singapore market and Lane Crawford Place was subsequently renamed Wheelock Place.
11. Singapore Shui Hing (1980-1983)
Shui Hing opened at Orchard Road in August 1980, selling mainly American and European merchandise. The store itself spanned four storeys, comprising sections selling fashion, kitchenware and household products. An onsite gourmet shop serving food and beverages also featured.
However, a year later, Shui Hing attempted to shed its pricey New Yorkish image. By mid-1983, the department store and its building were put up for sale at a hefty price of $32 million. OG bought the building for $25 million, and Singapore Shui Hong officially walked into history in July 1983.
Memorable slogan: “It’s like shopping in New York”
12. Kmart Metro (1994-1996)
In 1994, Kmart collaborated with Metro Holdings to open three stores in Singapore, including the ones at Marina Square and Century Square. Positioning itself as a store offering great value for money, it aimed to bring a whole new meaning to “discount shopping”.
But again, Singapore’s retail slump in the nineties put massive pressure on them, which suffered losses totaling $12.6 million in 1995. A year later, Kmart’s main office in the United States decided to close more than 200 stores globally, including the Singapore outlets, to focus on North and South American markets.
13. Cortina (1973-late 1980s)
Cortina Department Store was a prominent shopping venue housed inside Colombo Court, North Bridge Road. Occupying six floors, the department store sold everything from fashion, shoes, bags and perfumes to toys, wine and kitchenware. But it suffered a decline in fortunes around the early eighties, was downsized in 1984 before shifting to Funan Centre a year later.
Other notable local entrants of the past also included the Aurora Department Store (1938-1960s) located at the junction of North Bridge Road and High Street, and Vashi’s Department Store (1960s-1973), a department store at Raffles Place’s D’Almeida Street during the sixties. It closed down in September 1973.
Both were upmarket department stores catering to the masses living and working within the central city district.
14. Emporium (1961-1987)
Emporium was a name which once resonated with scores of Singaporeans, being the little red dot’s largest department chain in the early eighties before things went south no thanks to the 1985 recession.
At its peak, the Emporium Holdings Group, established by Lim Tow Yong and his brother back in 1961, opened more than 50 department stores in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. Its iconic Emporium department stores could be found in almost all major new towns across Singapore by the early eighties.
Besides Emporium, the group also owned Oriental, Chinese, Eastern, Sin Hua and Yuyi, which specialised in a wide range of Chinese products in garments, textiles and food stuff. In 1978, Emporium Holdings Group opened its 12th retail concept – Klasse Department Store – at Lucky Plaza.
Debt-laden in the mid-eighties due to the unexpected economic recession and the group’s overly aggressive expansion tactics, Emporium went belly up unceremoniously and gradually faded into memory.
Memorable Slogan: “There’s an Emporium around every corner to serve you!“
15. Tah Chung Emporium (1967-1990s)
Located between Commonwealth Avenue and Margaret Drive, Tah Chung Emporium opened in 1967, and served as Queenstown’s iconic landmark for more than two decades. It was housed in a three-storey building, with the first and third floor leased by hawkers and a Chinese dim sum restaurant. The emporium had the entire second level to itself, selling household goods, kitchenware, apparel and electrical appliances.
In the seventies, Tah Chung Emporium also collaborated with Emporium Holdings Group, Singapura Emporium (East Coast Road) and People’s Emporium (Tanjong Katong Road) to dish out a “combined emporiums sale”, dangling discount vouchers, free gifts among various carrots.
Mirroring Queenstown's coming of age, Tah Chung Emporium's downward spiral led to its inevitable closure in the late nineties, with the building being torn down in 1999.
The name emporium was widely used between the sixties and eighties. Besides the larger department stores under Emporium Holdings Group and Tah Chung Emporium, many other entities such as Tashing Emporium (at People’s Park Complex), Overseas Emporium (People’s Park Complex), Great Wall Emporium (Maxwell Road), Shankar’s Emporium (High Street) and Neo Soon Whatt Emporium (Serangoon Gardens) also sprung up.
Tashing Co (Pte) Ltd started out as a heavy machinery supplier in 1969. It later masterminded Tashing Emporium, offering products largely imported from Taiwan. Their emporium business unfortunately floundered and was came to a grinding halt in 2002, but Tashing Co (Pte) Ltd has since switched to wholesale distribution of food products and presently ranks among the top 1,000 SMEs (small and medium enterprises).
Overseas Emporium was established in 1970 at the People’s Park Complex. The largest Chinese emporium in Singapore then, its signature paper bags emblazoned with the 中桥 logo were a common sight throughout the decade. Operating under the OEGroup umbrella, the department store remains a popular shopping destination among locals today.
Shankar’s Emporium was founded in the fifties and has been in business for more than 65 years. It is headquartered in Singapore, with miscellaneous business operations in the Middle East.
Neo Soon Whatt Emporium on the other hand was a small former department store at Serangoon Gardens in the late sixties, selling China and locally manufactured products.
Current Department Stores
Today, major department stores still surviving in Singapore include the likes of Takashimaya, Isetan, OG, BHG, Tangs, Marks & Spencer (formerly St Michael, renamed in 1994) and Metro.
Note: This article first appeared on REMEMBER SINGAPORE. It is reproduced with permission.