Are global brands throwing in the towel in Singapore?

Pedestrians and shoppers cross Orchard Road in Singapore.
Charles Pertwee | Bloomberg | Getty Images

As Singapore's cut-throat retail scene pushes companies to their limits, a number of international retailers are whittling down or completely shuttering their store space in the city-state.

This month, Japanese casual wear label Lowrys Farm announced its decision to pull out of Singapore after three years, citing poor sales. This follows the exit of other Japanese brands over the past two years including department store Parco, lifestyle store Francfranc, and skincare product Fancl, as well as British high-street fashion house River Island and U.S. bed linen retailer Aussino Group.

Meanwhile, Japanese department store Isetan, which operates six outlets in Singapore, will halt operations at one of its locations along the prime shopping belt of Orchard Road from the second quarter of 2015.

"It's a tough sector we are seeing, with the overhead costs to revenue ratio being less than ideal for some time now," said Alan Cheong, senior director of Research & Consultancy at Savills Singapore. "You can still succeed with proper market research, but the topline is discouraging overseas brands from taking risks here now."

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The Southeast Asian city-state's competitive retail scene is not new. Long-standing macroeconomic factors like rising costs and a labor crunch due to tighter foreign worker policies intensified competition as Singapore developed. The rise of e-commerce exacerbated those woes, while, more recently, a decline in tourist arrivals in 2014 hit retailers.

Government figures show international visitor arrivals to Singapore for the first 11 months of 2014 fell 3.4 percent on-year to 13.72 million. This is due mainly to a 25.7 percent decline in Chinese visitor arrivals, which are notably the biggest spenders among tourists in the Southeast Asian city, the Singapore Tourism Board said.

Holidaymakers from the mainland have become wary of traveling to the region because of political unrest in Thailand, the Malaysia Airlines' twin tragedies and tighter regulations on tour packages in China.

With the retail sector heavily dependent on the domestic tourism industry, Singapore's retail sales saw a dismal start to 2014, with monthly declines through May, government data showed. However, retail sales recovered in June and leaped 8.2 percent in October, coinciding with a pick up in tourist arrivals from China, Colliers' analysts said in a note.

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Still, year-to-November, retail sales in Singapore were up a mere 0.2 percent.

Cautious consumption pattern amid a slowing economy also underlie the dismal spending in consumer discretionary items , JP Morgan's analysts wrote in a note.

The advent of budget airlines also allowed price-sensitive Singaporean shoppers to purchase their favorite foreign brands overseas, as rising business costs usually bump up the price tags for imported goods in Singapore, experts say.

Moving forward, market watchers expect more foreign retailers to call it quits in Singapore, in particular the Japanese brands.

"It seems that Japanese firms are still not benefiting from Abenomics and so they have a lesser tolerance for the amount of 'tuition fees' that they need to fork out in a new market." Savills Singapore's Cheong said. "When your head office isn't performing, every cent counts and so, yanking down outpost stores is the way out."

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Not everyone is hurting

To be sure, not all retailers are bearish on Singapore's retail scene.

With its multi-racial consumers and strong supply chains, the affluent Southeast Asian country remains the third most attractive city for international brands looking to expand in the Asia-Pacific region, according to a survey by real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle last December.

Finnish retailer Marimekko, for instance, aims to venture into Singapore by the first quarter of 2015.

"Singapore is a modern metropolis and is considered as one of the region's top shopping destinations for tourists. As an aviation gateway it also serves as an access point to many Asian countries. In our opinion, it is a market with high growth potential," said Mika Ihamuotila, president and CEO of Marimekko, in a company statement.