Commentary: How many shoppers can Orchard Road’s Christmas light-up lure back?
Festive lights along Orchard Road are a great way to bring on the holiday spirit. But Singapore’s premier shopping strip must continue offering unique retail experiences to attract shoppers, says Karen Tee.
SINGAPORE: It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas - especially on Orchard Road.
Cynics may decry little reason to feel festive with the current surge in coronavirus cases. But Singapore’s prime shopping street is pressing on with its annual Christmas light-up in the hopes of a “return to normalcy”.
Although it has been years since my childhood days of gawking at holiday displays in wonder, I am looking forward to the fresh breath of air this holiday season might inject into Orchard Road this year.
Life since the pandemic has been mostly defined by a plethora of strict measures, a distinct air of sombreness and more recently, lots of self-administered COVID-19 tests.
My dulled senses and COVID-frozen heart are yearning for visual and sensory stimulus that offer momentary relief from this seemingly endless and repetitive blur of pandemic living.
There is just something about decorative facades and piped-in holiday music that seems to create a happy, festive atmosphere, which is a welcome mood-lifter, whether we are locals or travellers in Singapore on the Vaccinated Travel Lane.
It feels like eons ago but I recall how Chinatown’s Lunar New Year decorations, the Hari Raya lights in Geylang Serai and the more recent Deepavali decor along Little India have added to the merry vibe of the precincts, even though crowds stayed small due to COVID-19 limits on group sizes.
I am not alone in feeling this way. In the few weeks leading up to the official Nov 13 light-up, I have seen a growing number of social media posts by delighted eagle-eyed shoppers who have spotted scaffolding and light tests along Orchard Road or noticed the malls setting up their holiday decor.
SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY IS STILL NECESSARY
Singapore is not out of the woods yet. Playing our part in adhering to social distancing regulations to keep each other safe remains a chief responsibility.
So it makes sense that the Orchard Road Business Association (ORBA) is also enhancing the digital aspect to the light-up such as a virtual tour with high-tech augmented reality features as well as a tie-up with e-commerce platform Lazada for an Orchard Road campaign page. That way, people can partake in the year-end festivities and customary shopping bargains while still practicing distancing.
Any increased footfall will surely be welcome, considering how eerily empty malls have been a more common sight when restrictions were tightened over the past two years.
Vaccine-differentiated measures, such as allowing only fully vaccinated individuals to enter shopping malls, should inspire confidence in shoppers that malls remain safe – after shopping centres like ION Orchard were linked to several COVID-19 cases over the past year.
HOW TO GET MORE PEOPLE BACK TO ORCHARD ROAD
But more than pretty lights and loads of bells and whistles - like an augmented reality enhanced projection at Mandarin Orchard Singapore - it is the experiential element of shopping that will get people coming back for more.
The Orchard Road experience has to be exceptional, to continue to stand out as Singapore’s premier shopping street in a crowded, competitive retail scene that includes e-commerce giants who offer convenience at a click and plenty of suburban malls that cater to residents’ daily needs. It needs to appeal to our hunter-gatherer instinct.
Many malls and flagship boutiques already attract travellers and big spenders who wish to splurge on luxury brands - but this category of shoppers are likely to be in the minority.
To entice more shoppers to “travel” to this destination, Orchard Road must continue bulking up its range and variety of shops - the main reason why anyone would take time to visit.
There is a stretch along basement one of Takashimaya Shopping Centre that includes a fascinating range of brands including designer handbag label Senreve hailing from San Francisco and cult fragrance brands Le Labo and Byredo.
Sitting within the affordable luxury price range, this is an interesting spot to scope out a small treat for ourselves - or a loved one - for those inclined.
There is also the utilitarian chic Singapore label Beyond The Vines, which is roughly similar in prices to high street brands like Zara, and an atelier by homegrown perfume brand Maison 21G that makes this little “shopping strip” uniquely Singapore.
A little further down, the Design Orchard retail and incubator space at the intersection of Orchard and Cairnhill Roads is always a fun treasure hunt stopover to peruse quality, hand-made products by homegrown designers anyone would be proud to own for a long time to come.
There is a curated selection of apparel and jewellery from some of the country’s most interesting designer brands, such as Reckless Ericka, Ginlee Studio and Marilyn Tan. But there are also plenty of everyday items to browse and discover, such as athleisure by Kydra, homegrown beauty brands such as Re:Erth and quirky gift items like coasters and trays by Photo Phactory.
As someone who enjoys scoping out shops for inspiration, I wish for more of such unique concepts along Orchard Road to draw me out from my home bubble.
Perhaps the one good thing emerging from the slew of COVID-19 related closures along the street is the resulting creative destruction and the birth of space for new places.
The newly launched Courts Nojima megastore, which moved into The Heeren to replace Robinsons, is riding on the popularity of home furnishings as more people have worked from home.
With a storefront conjuring the chaotic exuberance of electronic stores in Tokyo’s famed Akihabara tech district, this could be the next destination for techies to check out the latest VR and AR gadgets.
The store’s robot vacuum experiential corner gives people the chance to create a mess and see if these gadgets can do the trick while its e-sports gaming centre also holds the promise of hosting future tournaments.
Already, snaking queues were seen last week when exclusive early access was given to Courts Homeclub members. It appears they are already meeting a pent-up demand in the consumer market.
LIGHT AT END OF TUNNEL
Another draw of Orchard Road is its destination for people can hang out with each other and check out interesting things, whether shops, F&B outlets or lifestyle experiences like yoga sessions or cooking classes.
Many are craving a sense of newness and that sense of surprise they can enjoy with friends and family, especially after close to two years of the same old routines and mind-numbing safety precautions.
Until buskers can return to provide entertainment while people sit and watch, building this element of discovery is something else that the malls and retailers along Orchard Road should consider as they spruce up spaces in anticipation of crowds returning if COVID-19 related measures are further relaxed.
In this sense, this year’s Christmas light-up aptly conveys a message of hope for better days ahead. Perhaps they are a literal representation of the light at the end of our very long tunnel.
So this Christmas season, I am going to do something I have not done in years. I will take some time on a less-crowded weekday to stroll down Orchard Road and bask in the holiday lights as I, too, make my own wishes for a return to normalcy.
Karen Tee is a freelance lifestyle, travel journalist and a graduate of Columbia University’s School of Journalism in New York City.