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.