STORES serving the Japanese market in Liang Court are bemoaning a big drop in sales, with several saying they will give up their leases if the poor business persists.
The dip was bad enough for the mall's landlord, AsiaMalls, to stage a $40 million revamp last year to move away from its roots as a shopping centre catering mainly to Japanese expatriates and appeal to a wider group.
It included reorganising the mall's layout and increasing visibility for shop fronts. Tenants such as Taiwanese restaurant Shin Yeh and furniture shop Living Works were introduced.
It was a necessary move.
According to the Japanese Association, many of its members have left recently, and more are set to go next month - the month Japanese firms traditionally end their contracts.
The association's secretary-general, Mr Kazuo Sugino, said he 'expects that many more expats will be asked to return home after March due to the economic downturn'.
There were 25,969 Japanese expats in Singapore in 2007, the latest year for which figures are available. This was a slight drop from the 26,370 in 2006.
Japanese housewife I. Hiroko, 42, knows of 10 Japanese families which will be leaving next month and wonders when it will be her turn to leave.
All this has left some Liang Court stores, which sell everything from Chinese tea to bookmarks, reeling.
In the past two months, Liu Xiang Tea Craft has lost 25 per cent of its regular clientele, mainly tea-appreciation students, along with half of its walk-in customers. Almost all the customers are wives of Japanese workers posted here.
It looks set to get even worse: 12 more students will be packing their teacups to leave next month.
'Companies usually give them two months' notice; then they are gone, and so is my customer base,' said Mr Lee Chee Keong, the 56-year-old owner of the store.
Some tenants are nearly at the end of their tether.
A Big John outlet on the first floor, which sells a popular Japanese brand of jeans, has been in the red since it opened in June last year. Its director, Mr Vincent Chua, 54, will not be renewing his lease, which has a year and three months to go.
'There are no customers, what can we do? My staff just sit around and look at walls. The Japanese just go to the supermarket and go home,' he said.
In contrast, shops selling goods that appeal to a wider market are not complaining.
A spokesman for Subway food outlet said business was 'better than anticipated' and he had no problems covering costs. A spokesman for electronics retailer Audiohouse said business had been 'quite swift' during the soft opening last August and grand opening in December.
The revamp resulted in shopper traffic hitting 700,000 in December, up 148 per cent from the previous year, said Ms Stephnie Ho, general manager of AsiaMall Management. Last month,
shopper traffic was about 590,000.
The idea, she said, was to extend the mall's repertoire to 'broaden its appeal'.
She added that over the past seven months, the mall has purchased tenants' vouchers and products worth $92,000.
'This directly goes back to the tenants as sales chalked up. In our promotions for 2009, we will continue with this strategy to boost sales,' she said.
Liang Court started life in 1983, catering mainly to the Japanese market.
For a while, boosted by the anchor tenant Daimaru, a popular Japanese department store, it was a shining light in Singapore's retail industry, despite being quite a way off the Orchard Road shopping belt.
It is perhaps best remembered for its extravagant Christmas decorations, which electrified crowds and earned accolades from the then Singapore Tourist Promotion Board.
But Liang Court's history provides little comfort for Perpetua Fashion.
Two months ago, the women's store was selling about 10 dresses a week to Japanese customers.
'Now we would be lucky if we sell even a third of that,' said shop assistant Marienel Galano, 23. 'If there is increased traffic from the revamp, we are not seeing it.'
Source: Straits Times - 10 Feb 2009