Sunday, April 4, 2010

Orchard’s fading beauties

Take a stroll from Tanglin to Orchard and you will not miss these aged stalwarts of the shopping strip: Tanglin Shopping Centre, Far East Shopping Centre, Lucky Plaza, Far East Plaza, Orchard Towers and Orchard Plaza, with their 1970s architecture and haphazard mix of retailers.

Already, one of them might be on its last legs: Orchard Road’s oldest mall, the 38-year-old Tanglin Shopping Centre, which comprises retail and office space as well as residential apartments, has started the process of going en bloc.

The Millennium & Copthorne (M&C) Hotels group, a subsidiary of City Developments Ltd, owns about 30 per cent of the property, with the rest shared among subsidiary proprietors who own their shop units.

So far, about 20 per cent of them have voted to sell, with the owners from M&C yet to exercise their heavyweight vote. A majority of 80 per cent is needed for further action to be taken.

‘If the decision to sell en bloc goes through, we could be gone in two years,’ says Mr Ronald Chia, tailor and owner of Man’s Creations, which has been in business there for 35 years and is on the management council.

He supports the sale because the building’s maintenance, which the owners contribute to, is costing ‘thousands of dollars every month’.

The plot of land is also said to be underutilised, with the property going only as high as 12 storeys.

While CDL declined to comment on the issue of going en bloc, LifeStyle understands that the owners stand to be paid about 21/2 times the market value of their units if the bid is accepted.

But while time will decide the fate of Tanglin Shopping Centre, the poser is: Can these grand old ladies of Orchard Road stay relevant without biting the dust?

Glitzy new malls such as Ion Orchard and 313@Somerset, along with the revamped Paragon, have lent new pizzazz to Singapore’s famed shopping area, their gleaming facades proving them belles of the ball.

Next to them, these past-their-prime malls resemble their ugly stepsisters.

Shopkeepers LifeStyle interviewed say the rise of modern monoliths such as Ion Orchard have resulted in thinning crowds in their neck of the woods.

Lucky Plaza watch shop owner Sunny Ng, 52, says the new competition has lured high-spending customers away. ‘They have shaved off the top of my consumer pyramid,’ says the proprietor of All Watches.

It is a pity because the mature malls are venerable slices of Singapore’s retail history. Many of their retailers – think tailors and beauticians – have been stoic denizens of Orchard Road for decades.

Far East Plaza beautician Teresa Mary Wong, 60, who runs Femma Beauty Centre, has been in business for 20 years. ‘New malls, new challenges,’ she says, explaining why she has stayed for so long. Her clientele comprises mostly air stewardesses who used to stay at the Hyatt hotel next door.

‘It’s not so high class here but that’s good because after your facial and your hair is messy, you can go into the carpark and drive off,’ she says.

But why have these buildings not attempted to renew themselves?

A key reason is that as strata-title malls, shop units are typically owned by individuals who are inclined to look after their own business rather than the interests of the property as a whole.

Though there are sometimes big-name shareholders involved, such as Far East Organization, they do not hold a majority. Refurbishment works can be carried out only if there is a majority consensus among the owners, some of whom sit on the management council.

In contrast, new-style malls such as CapitaLand’s Ion Orchard lease out space, allowing the landlord control of issues such as branding and tenant mix.

A strata-title model entails ‘minimal management of the mall’, says Associate Professor Ang Swee Hoon from the department of marketing at the National University of Singapore Business School. ‘Developers sell the retail space and let each individual unit manage how it does its business.’

This worked in the past because consumers had less sophisticated demands. ‘You went to a place because you knew the owner of the shop, not because the mall was nice or there were other shops there that would be attractive to you.’

Things have changed, with mall management playing a bigger role in identifying its target markets, she says.

So far, it has been a tale of mixed fortunes for Orchard’s fading beauties.

The 600-unit Far East Plaza, built in 1983 and is 44 per cent-owned by Far East Organization, has an occupancy rate of 98 per cent, says Mr Charles Yue, a Ginza Real Estate shop specialist and the mall’s ‘caretaker’.

In 2005, it undertook some improvement works, with $6.53 million spent on enhancing floors, external walkways and toilets.

Business has dropped by about 30 to 50 per cent since the opening of the newer malls, says Mr Yue, but the mall has developed a ‘bohemian’ vibe, positioning itself as an incubator for entrepreneurs hawking young fashion.

Like most of the old guard, rents are cheaper than at their swanky neighbours. ‘It’s easy entry, you don’t need a concept plan to show the management. If you’re willing to pay the rental, you can set up shop here,’ he says.

The rental at Far East Plaza ranges from $10 to $40 per square foot.

Indeed, establishing niche selling points has been a key survival tactic.

While Far East Plaza is a teenagers’ haven, Lucky Plaza, built in 1978 and with its chaotic warren of 592 shops, has made its name as the Sunday stop for Singapore’s Filipino community.

‘Sundays are very busy,’ says MsNarcisa Lim, 49, who runs Hortaliza, a Filipino goods store that has been there since 2003.

‘I get a lot of kabayan (‘fellow countrymen’ in Tagalog) customers. It’s very competitive here but this is good.’

Old can still be gold

In 2005, Lucky Plaza – whose stakeholders include Far East Organization, Hong Leong Group and Royal Brothers – spent $3.3 million to upgrade its interior. There are also plans to buff up the building’s floor tiles, says complex manager Lee Chong Ming.

Far East Shopping Centre, which Far East Organization has a share in, is in desperate need of a facelift. Opened in 1974, its low ceilings and dimly lit corridors give off a faintly claustrophobic feel. But across two floors, at least 10 golf shops have mushroomed.

Gesturing to a small table fan on his counter, sales supervisor at MST Golf Thomas Tan, 47, says: ‘This is probably the worst shopping centre in Orchard Road. The air-conditioning is lousy, but you pay almost half the rent you pay inside the CBD.’

The golf scene there came up about 10 years ago and, from then on, it was ‘monkey see, monkey do’, he says, referring to how more golf businesses saw the potential of being within a niche area.

Not all are happy, though. Tailor Nelson Siew, 62, who owns Leighton’s Shop, laments the lack of cohesion among owners to spruce up the building. ‘We are sitting on a goldmine,’ he says, referring to its location and potential for en bloc, ‘but we don’t know how to make it work for us.’

He has no walk-in customers but relies on a pool of regulars. Moving out is not an option because of high property prices. ‘Once you move out of Orchard Road, you won’t be able to buy in Orchard Road any more,’ he says.

Those with a taste for finer things will mourn the possible demise of Tanglin Shopping Centre. A cluster of its shops specialises in anything from bronze sculptures to antiquarian maps to contemporary art. Antiques Of The Orient owner Julie Yeo, in her 60s, sees a steady stream of expatriates and tourists. ‘People who come here are serious buyers. Once they walk in, they are already looking for something,’ she says.

On the higher floors, however, many shops remain vacant. ‘This building has served its duty,’ says MrLen Hoo, 58, who owns C.T.Hoo jewellery shop, adding that the lack of an event space makes it difficult to organise promotional activities to draw shoppers.

But while some of these freewheeling ’senior citizen’ malls are finding ways to eke out some character, others look like they have been left to fester. Orchard Towers, with its seedy bars and vice trade, is an example. At Orchard Plaza, KTV lounges look incongruous with tuition centres and beauty parlours.

Says one beauty parlour tenant who asked not to be named: ‘I was very comfortable for the last few years until one sleazy shop popped up. Some of the tenants here have been upset by the uncontrolled tenant mix.’

Still, whether their peeling facades, messy shops and questionable retail activities are an eyesore or not, some feel that old can still be gold in Orchard.

Says retail expert Lynda Wee from business consultancy Bootstrap: ‘They are unique because they look and feel different. They attract tourist shoppers in search of a different shopping experience.’

Adds Mr Steven Goh, spokesman for the Orchard Road Business Association: ‘At a macro level, malls such as Lucky Plaza and Far East Plaza are part of history. We like them because they add diversity, so it’s not just high-end shopping. The new and old can co-exist and it’s not in our interest to get rid of them.’

Source: Sunday Times, 4 Apr 2010

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