At a time of digital disruption, the luxury mall — which turns 10 in September — has kept occupancy nearly full and footfall stable. CEO Yeo Mui Hong tells Options how

SINGAPORE (Aug 5): A ferris wheel. Celebrity-studded fashion concerts. Exotic birds. A butterfly dome. These are some of the head-turning events that have popped up at ION Orchard, one of the largest malls on Orchard Road. In April, shoppers and passers-by even found themselves face to face with a mermaid. In a seawater aquarium, a woman in a sequined costume glided and posed for photos. Visitors lapped it up.

“Response was so overwhelming that we added on more shows,” says Yeo Mui Hong, CEO of Orchard Turn Developments, which owns the mall. In September, to mark the mall’s 10th anniversary, aerial performers will take centre stage. ION has also put up an immersive multimedia Lego show on its 55th floor and a kaleidoscopic installation of mirrors and lights, bound to resonate with the Instagram crowd.

Rolling out inventive, social media-friendly experiences to drive traffic to malls is now integral to brick-and-mortar retail management, one of the industries most upended by the internet. Yeo, who has been in the retail business for nearly three decades, has embraced this, alongside the other challenges of Singapore’s shopping scene, which has been criticised for having too many cookie-cutter malls. “Previously, if there was a change in tenant, you didn’t have to do much work as a landlord. You just changed the directory. Now, you need to change the mobile app, the website and update all your social media channels,” she points out.

E-commerce has revolutionised how consumers shop and malls have had to become much more active than reactive. “We cannot sit back and wait for shoppers to come,” says Yeo. That’s even more so now, with futuristic retail playgrounds springing up in Singapore, such as Jewel Changi Airport, with its crowd-pulling indoor waterfall, and the revamped Funan Mall, with its indoor cycling path and KopiTech food court that accepts cryptocurrencies.

“There will always be new players,” says Yeo. “But you must not only capture attention, you must be able to sustain it.” For its part, ION has had a captive flow of traffic from day one by virtue of its prime location. It sits above the Orchard MRT station, which has one of the heaviest commuter numbers across the island, and is linked to an underground walkway that connects pedestrians from Scotts and Orchard Roads. That makes the eight-storey mall with its 300-plus shops an easy detour for passers-by.

To translate that footfall into sales and customer loyalty, its strategy has been to provide a smorgasbord of price points, from bargain Japanese chain Daiso and street food outlets in its basement to luxury brands on its upper four levels. To help people navigate its 640,000 sq ft of lettable space, it has a large team of around 80 concierge staff and roving officers covering all floors. It has also put in place a multi-tiered loyalty programme, which five years on has developed partnerships with Shinsegae in Seoul; Siam Paragon, Siam Center and Siam Discovery in Bangkok; and Ginza Six in Tokyo.

Aside from giving members benefits such as discounts and vouchers, ION tries to build customer retention by working with brands to roll out exclusive products or unique in-store experiences. In May, for instance, members had first dibs on Louis Vuitton’s Monogram Brown Logos Chalk Nano Bag designed by Virgil Abloh for the fashion brand’s men’s pre-fall 2019 collection.

New-to-market brands are another way the mall sets itself apart from its rivals. “We look for firsts in the region,” says Yeo. The ION stores for British haute jeweller Graff and American jewellery and timepiece maker Harry Winston, for example, are the sole outposts in Southeast Asia for both brands. In 2015, upscale French-Italian ski and sportswear line Moncler opened its first Southeast Asian flagship store at ION. Two years later, cult Korean eyewear brand Gentle Monster made its Southeast Asian debut with a store opening at ION marked by the appearance of South Korean TV star Lee Dong-wook.

Yeo: [Occupancy] has been almost close to full for the whole 10 years

Brick-and-click

Today, the mall is home to a long list of international brands that plant a flag here hoping to tap regional demand through the city state’s tourist arrivals, which reached a record 18.5 million last year. According to the Mastercard Global Destination Index, Singapore is the fifth city globally for tourist spending in the category of shopping.

That has helped propel the ION stores to the top 10 league globally for size and sales of their brands. Patek Philippe’s boutique at ION, for instance, is the second largest in the world for the high-end Swiss watchmaker. Cartier has a boutique that spans three storeys. Designed by Parisian artist-designer Bruno Moinard, it comes with a salon for bespoke services and the sort of purchases that are rarely done online.

At B2, sprawling across 10,000 sq ft, Sephora’s ION outlet ranks as one of the top 10 stores worldwide for the French beauty and make-up chain. Yeo cites Sephora as a prime example of a brand that is dealing successfully with the disruption from online shopping. Although almost every brand of note has a virtual storefront these days, Sephora stands out for its seamless brick-and-click model.

“They are very active online, they engage beauty bloggers. At the same time, you have to come offline to test the products. And when you do, the staff are well trained to build loyalty. They give advice and samples that you can’t get online,” she says. Sephora has also generated buzz with celebrity appearances at its ION store. These include Kat Von D, a tattoo artist and reality TV star who launched a make-up line, and best-selling singer Rihanna, who dropped by last October for the first anniversary of her Fenty Beauty line.

Providing shoppers with what they cannot find online is increasingly how retailers and landlords are engaging shoppers. A study by Visa showed that 26% of Singaporeans shop online at least once a week — the highest percentage per capita in Southeast Asia. As a whole, the e-commerce market in the city state is tipped to grow 48% to $9.98 billion by 2022, according to payments technology company WorldPay.

Retail-tainment

Malls have also upped their game when it comes to retail-tainment, which is where shopping and entertainment converge. When Cartier reopened its remodelled triplex store last November, it had a specially curated exhibition of pieces from its archives in Paris as well as a giant ferris wheel in front of ION. “They had never done an outdoor installation before,” says Yeo. 

Another first was the Virtually Versailles (below) exhibition at ION Sky (observation deck) and ION Art (gallery). Using virtual and augmented reality technologies, an interactive gallery and light show gave visitors a feel of being in France’s Palace of Versailles, one of the largest and most opulent castles ever built. It took one year of discussions with the Palace of Versailles and it was the first time the heritage landmark was recreated in digital form, notes Yeo. The show, which ran from Nov 30 to Jan 6, drew over 50,000 visitors.

ION Sky, which at 218m is the highest point on Orchard Road, also offers visitors a 270º light projection and animation show depicting the history of Orchard Road, which used to be a nutmeg plantation. “We work closely with STB [Singapore Tourism Board] to market Sky and turn it into a tourist destination,” says Yeo. ION Art, meanwhile, showcases modern and contemporary art. Entrance is free. It also has a Young Talent Programme to nurture emerging artists. Aside from this, ION also offers a free food trail that allows tourists to sample local dishes.

Retail-tainment must be adding to operating costs, but Yeo declines to say how much is spent on marketing. She does stress that marketing efforts are done hand in hand with partners who “know ION is very open to new things and very receptive to explore a collaborative approach”.

Evolving tenant mix

As retail footfall falters, many mall operators have resorted to F&B and activity-based tenants such as fitness gyms and virtual reality arcades to boost numbers. F&B can now account for between 30% and 35% of tenant composition at malls. However, at ION, Yeo says the strategy is to maintain it at below 30%. Most recently, it added Violet Oon Singapore, an all-day dining outlet started by the doyenne of Peranakan and heritage cuisine. Jumbo Seafood (below), famed for its chili crab, also opened its first restaurant in a mall at ION. “We pursued them because tourists were always asking for authentic Singapore food,” says Yeo.

To move with tastes and fashion cycles, the mall regularly refreshes its tenant mix. Last year, it revamped its Level 3 and brought in Karl Lagerfeld’s eponymous label and Hugo by Hugo Boss, the first standalone outlet in Singapore for the fashion label. Pinko, the Italian luxury streetwear brand that has found appeal among younger shoppers, also made its Southeast Asian debut at ION’s L3.

Over the years, footfall at ION has been stable, says Yeo. More significantly, occupancy has been healthy. “We have been almost close to full for the whole 10 years,” she notes. In comparison, the vacancy rate for retail space islandwide stood at 8.7% as at 1Q.

Yeo joined Orchard Turn Developments, a joint venture between CapitaMalls Asia and Sung Hung Kai Properties of Hong Kong, in 2013. As director of retail management, she oversaw leasing, marketing and facility management. Prior to that, she had stints at City Developments, CapitaLand Commercial, Lendlease Asia and Marina Bay Sands. She was made CEO in May last year.

She joined Takashimaya Department Store after she graduated from the National University of Singapore, where she majored in Japanese studies and became proficient in the language. “I had an interest in Japan and J-pop at the time,” says Yeo. At Takashimaya, she gained first-hand exposure to Japan’s outstanding service culture. She then moved to property consultant Jones Lang LaSalle, where she worked in retail leasing with malls such as Paragon, Heeren and CHIJMES. Following that, she went on to manage Forum The Shopping Mall.

Elegant and stylish, Yeo can often be found patrolling her mall. “I don’t like to take the lift; I take the escalators to observe the mall,” she says. She checks on the operations teams and gets feedback from tenants and store managers to understand the challenges they face on the ground. “I also tell them when merchandise can be improved,” she adds. A shopping enthusiast, she spends her holidays drawing inspiration from other retail districts and lists Tokyo’s Omotesando as one of her favourites. “Retail is in my DNA,” she says.

Sunita Sue Leng was previously an associate editor at The Edge Singapore