After exiting Singapore in January, 163-year-old Robinsons will make a comeback as an online department store.

In a statement on Thursday (June 10), the iconic retailer announced that it was acquired by wholesale supplier Canningvale Australia, owned by the Prainito family, this month.

The newly independent Robinsons Department Stores Online has already hired two former Robinsons employees and will employ Singaporeans to “fill various positions across the business”, it added.

The website will go live on June 24, 2021

With its head office based in Singapore, the business will be led by Mr Jordan Prainito, the former managing director of Canningvale Australia.

The incoming managing director of Robinsons Singapore said: “I’m excited to be relaunching such an iconic brand. The brand has a rich history, and it strongly resonates with Singaporean and South-east Asian customers. It just needs to be catapulted into the 21st century.”

Related article: More Retailers In Singapore Expected To Shutter After Robinsons’ Closure

Robinsons Singapore
Nearly empty shelves in the Robinsons store at Raffles City Shopping Centre, prior to its closure, on Oct 31, 2020. (Photo: Jessie Lim/Straits Times)

The online department store will feature more than 200 brands as well as collaborations that will debut exclusively on the new platform.

On the digitalisation, Mr Prainito said: “We’ll apply the learnings from Canningvale’s digital transformation, where we saw e-commerce sales increase tenfold in under five years.

“This was achieved through a combination of sourcing expertise, range clarification, system automation, marketing expertise and a forensic focus on our customers.”

Founded in 1858 by Philip Robinson and James Gaborian Spicer, Robinsons began as a “family warehouse” selling items such as food and women’s hats.

Despite being hit twice by Japanese bombs during World War II in 1941 and gutted by a massive fire in 1972, the department store survived as an iconic shopping destination in Singapore.

However, years of declining sales and rising competition from e-commerce sent the retailer into voluntary liquidation on Oct 30 last year.

Speaking to The Straits Times, Mr Prainito said the sale process of the company began last November and was overseen by liquidators KordaMentha.

“We found out about the closure of Robinsons on the news, and it was really quite sad that a Singaporean icon was being lost,” said Mr Prainito, who had studied in Singapore.

“It was a family decision to bid for its intellectual property, which was an opportunity to do business in the region.”

Responding to queries on whether the company owed vendors and creditors, Mr Prainito said Robinsons Singapore is a “separate entity” from its former owners, the Al-Futtaim Group, and is on a “clean slate”.

He added that the company is also keen to work with former Robinsons staff to help launch its “customer-focused digital platform”, and floated the possibility that there could be a physical store one day.

Experts lauded the move as timely, with memories still lingering of the grande dame of Singapore’s department stores.

While Associate Professor Lawrence Loh at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School called it “a pleasant surprise” for a brand which had garnered a strong emotional attachment among consumers, he noted that they should not expect a “simple reincarnation”.

“Now that Robinsons is purely online, its staple will be younger people instead of mature consumers who like to touch and feel products,” he said.

People might visit the website because of the novelty factor but the real acid test is in the sales, he added.

Director of Nanyang Polytechnic’s School of Business Management Esther Ho said that the market is fertile with “pent-up demand brought about by closed borders and consumers who are more familiar with online shopping”.

Going digital will help it become more sensitive to responding to consumer tastes and preferences, which accounted for waning sales before Covid-19 hit, she said.

Associate Professor of Marketing at NUS Ang Swee Hoon, a regular shopper at Robinsons before it closed, added that the brand’s assurance of quality could compete against e-commerce platforms Shopee and Lazada, which are known for their affordability.

“Robinsons is known for service where staff knew their products well, hopefully they can translate it online,” she said.

Meanwhile, news of the relaunch drew mixed reactions from customers.

Ms Sherley William, 50, a tutor, who had visited Robinsons’ former outlet at The Centrepoint since she was a child, said: “I’m very hopeful that they will learn from their past experience of alienating the average Singaporean shopper and will have more deals that appeal to heartlanders.”

But others said they were unlikely to return.

Mr Sim, 48, who declined to give his full name, said: “Part of the mystique is gone without a physical location… So, it’s not so much Robinsons, but the place itself.”

The new mall, Robinsons Online, will be accessible at this link.

This article first appeared in The Straits Times