Managing Asia

Does Singapore's Orchard Road need a revamp?

Surviving Singapore's retail slowdown

Orchard Road has long been regarded one of Asia's best shopping streets, but the time is ripe for reinvention, the boss of a century-old retailer in Singapore told CNBC.

"20 years ago, we had the 'Great Singapore Sale.' Since then, I think we haven't really re-invented anything," said Christophe Cann, managing director of Robinsons Group, in an interview with CNBC's "Managing Asia."

"Back then, it was convenient for regional customers to shop in Singapore because what they could find here, they couldn't find elsewhere. But now, it is a different ball game," he said.

Amid the population and consumer boom in other parts of Southeast Asia, global brands now have the option to set up shop elsewhere in the region, significantly reducing the need for people to travel to Singapore to shop.

Read MoreSingapore sale nolonger a top draw for tourists

With the republic's position as a top shopping destination at stake, attracting more international retailers is a viable solution, but soaring rents in land-scarce Singapore often deter them.

"I can bring new brands into Singapore, but if rents are too expensive, I have no incentive to do it. To have a fashion and retail scene that is more vibrant, retailers need to find a win-win strategy with the landlords," the former deputy general manager of French department store Galeries Lafayette said.

Apart from rising rentals, the retail sector in the Southeast Asian city-state is also feeling the heat from a labor crunch due to tighter foreign worker policies. The rise of e-commerce exacerbated those woes, while, more recently, a decline in tourist arrivals in 2014 took a toll on the industry, which contributes to a fifth of Singapore's gross domestic product (GDP).

"We have to find a way to attract customers again. It is about how you welcome your customers by offering more than just discounts," Cann said. "Singapore can keep its [sparkle as a shopping destination], but there's an urgent need to refresh it."

The Robinsons Orchard department store, operated by Al-Futtaim Group, stands illuminated at night on Orchard Road in Singapore.
Bryan van der Beek | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Stepping up the game

For Robinsons, reinvention is also what the 157-year-old department store is doing to keep up with the times.

The retail icon, which was acquired by Dubai-based Al-Futtaim Group in 2008, unveiled a swanky flag ship store a few blocks away from its old address along Orchard Road in 2013. Unfortunately, a sophisticated shopping environment carrying a mix of well-known designer and fashion-forward labels yielded less-than-stellar results.

"What was wrong was maybe the fashion went a bit too high-end and a bit too pricey. It's good to have merchandise and brands which look nice to have, but if it doesn't sell, it doesn't make sense," the 49-year-old Frenchman said.

Read MoreAre global retailers giving up on Singapore?

Among the changes introduced included dropping a few designer labels to make way for brands with more accessible price points and the merchandise that the department store had long been known for so as to retain loyal customers while pulling in the younger crowd.

"What we are doing now is fine-tuning our strategy to make sure it answers the needs of daily customers. There is no point in running a museum of fashion. We have to be in charge of a profitable organization," Cann said, who expects Robinsons to recoup the $40 million makeover bill over the next two years.

Other plans to rejuvenate the household name include jumping on the bandwagon of online shopping, which is a step that Cann thinks is an inevitable step for brick and mortar stores. Robinsons' e-commerce service will be launched by end-2015, with an aim to achieve 5-10 percent of the firm's current global sales.

Expansion is also on the cards. Apart from markets nearer to home like Malaysia and Indonesia, the company has also set its sights on the Middle East, where a Robinsons department store could open by 2017.

"The world is changing fast. You have to be very flexible... and go to where growth is," Cann told CNBC. "And that is definitely Asia and Middle East."

— Reporting by Christine Tan | Written by See Kit Tang

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