The statistics are grim. Vacancy rates in the Orchard Road area hit 8.8% in the first quarter of 2016 – the highest in five years, and 1.5% above the island-wide average of 7.3%. In some malls, entire stretches of store fronts are boarded up, while others are engaging in renovations in a bid to attract more shoppers. The reduced footfall is palpable.

So why don’t Singaporeans shop at Orchard Road anymore?

The simple answer is that they don’t have to. Suburban malls are increasingly bringing the entire Orchard Road experience to the doorstep of most Singaporeans. International brands, department stores, and popular fast fashion and F&B chains which were once available exclusively in the city centre have spread island-wide.

A recent survey by NUS Business School found that two-thirds of shoppers felt Orchard Road was losing its attractiveness as a retail destination, and 6 in 10 said they preferred to shop at malls nearer their homes. Moreover almost 90 percent of respondents felt that suburban malls are increasingly similar to malls in Orchard Road with the same type of tenants.

Mall managers should consider ways to design malls with more spaces to gather, sign on tenants which provide social experiences beyond shopping, and hold events which can boost the social experience

Likewise close to 8 in 10 felt that the Great Singapore Sale is losing its attractiveness due to discounts all year round by many retailers. Now many annual sale events everyone looks forward to are online: Singles Day, Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Indeed increasingly, eCommerce provides shoppers with a compelling alternative, especially in retail categories like fashion with lower or no shipping costs, free returns, and a large selection of products. In our survey we found just under a third of respondents preferred to shop online, with the number significantly higher – just over 40% – among younger shoppers.

Vacancy rates in the Orchard Road area hit 8.8% in the first quarter of 2016


So if we understand the reasons why people aren’t going to Orchard Road, what are the reasons they do go and what can we learn from them? Here are some potential avenues of opportunity our survey revealed.

A social experience

A trip to Orchard Road is a fundamentally different kind of outing than to a suburban mall or a mall near the workplace. Where malls near home are places to grab necessities, 82% of respondents in our survey said Orchard Road was a place to meet their friends).

Indeed in our survey 56.98% said they would frequent Orchard Road more if malls had more open public spaces, while 65.59% indicated that they would visit more frequently if there were more entertainment options such as theatres and concerts.

With this in mind, mall managers should consider ways to design malls with more spaces to gather, sign on tenants which provide social experiences beyond shopping, and hold events which can boost the social experience.

Mall hopping

Given the effort to travel from the suburbs, it is not surprising that people who do visit Orchard Road spend longer time there and visit more than one mall. This variety of shopping experiences in one location is a key differentiating factor of Orchard Road.

To capitalise on this Orchard Road Business Association should work on creating linkages across malls to allow people to move seamlessly from mall to mall, and to coordinate the different malls to provide compelling retail mixes with powerful shopping themes.

Load up on F&B

Singaporeans are willing to travel to eat good food, so unique F&B offerings not available in suburban malls can be another draw to Orchard Road.

In our survey we found that 67.73% of respondents visit Orchard Road to dine at an F&B establishment not available close to home, while 63.44% of visitors dine at an establishment unique to Orchard Road.

In response, Orchard Road mall operators might consider bringing in higher end F&B establishments such as celebrity chef or Michelin star restaurants, unique theme restaurants like Harry Potter, restaurants with special settings or unique, speciality cuisines. Ventures like these create opportunities for more dining occasions beyond the usual Valentine Day and Mother’s or Father’s Day.

Reimagining flagship stores

Orchard Road has traditionally been where large international brands park their flagship stores. But with many opening outlets elsewhere on the island, what reason is there for shoppers to make a trip downtown? With competition from local malls and online platforms, flagship stores cannot afford to be larger versions of a typical outlet.

One option may lie in so-called omnichannel retailing, where mall operators encourage dominant retailers of technical or electronic and beauty products to set up showrooms showcasing new products for customers to explore and then place their orders online using touchpads provided in the stores.

Another option is to go beyond international brands and seek out promising up and coming brands or designer fashion, such as those from Korea and China, to set up flagship stores in the malls, thus providing an offering not available in the suburban malls.

Differentiate or die

One of the clear findings in our study is frustration among shoppers over the similarity of mall offerings in Singapore: 87.10% of respondents felt that malls in Singapore are too similar, while 83.86% said that more interesting shopping mall concepts are needed.

The answer then is to differentiate or die. Rather than follow the same worn out path, malls in Orchard Road need to rise to the challenge and stand out from the run of the mill cookie-cutter malls in suburbs. Providing unique recreational, dining, shopping, mall hopping, and social experiences that will compel locals to make the trip downtown – or tourists to come here for something they cannot find back home – is the only way to win.

The article was written with research assistance from Natalie Wong, a BBA Honours student in NUS Business School.