If there is one thing retailers have learnt in this pandemic is that ecommerce will prevail in times of crisis. Just ask Jordan Prainito, the former executive director of Canningvale Australia, a well-known home and bedding wholesaler that purchased Robinsons this June in a multi-million dollar deal.

Under his leadership since 2017, Canningvale Australia has evolved from a wholesale supplier into a multi-million online business. Prainito modernised the enterprise resource planning (ERP) infrastructure, migrated the business from on-premise physical hardware to a cloud-based framework.

These changes positioned the 44-year-old company for scalable growth and enabled automation solutions that drove further efficiencies. Prainito also hired top-tier marketing talent to drive revenue growth through targeted digital marketing initiatives.

Now serving as managing director for Robinsons, 29-year-old Prainito will be applying his operational know-how to transform the iconic department store into a fully digital, state of the art and vertically integrated e-commerce platform.

Robinsons circa 2021 will become a virtual destination providing customers with access to the world’s most coveted designers and exclusive labels, as well as the best of local couturiers.

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“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,” says Prainito.

Legacy of a retail icon

A heritage brand that has earned its place in the hearts of people in Singapore and abroad, Robinsons needs little introduction. Originally known as Spicer and Robinson, the department store was founded in 1858 by Australian immigrants Philip Robinson and James Gaborian Spicer, who started the business as a ‘family warehouse’ at Commercial Square (now known as Raffles Place), selling food items as well as women’s hats and dressmaking materials.

In the 1940s, Robinsons expanded its offer to include men’s and women’s apparel, leather goods, confectionery and silverware, and a proper department store was born. Post-war, the brand expanded its retail footprint in Singapore and in the 1970s, it expanded its operations into Malaysia.

Over the years, Robinsons has seen many owners — from the Lippo Group who purchased the brand for $203 mil- lion in 2006, to the United Arab Emirates-based Al Futtaim Group that acquired retail operations for $600 million in 2008.

The subsequent rapid expansion to Malaysia and Dubai proved too costly for Al Futtaim and drove Robinsons to liquidate on Oct 30 last year. The weakening demand for the department store model, on top of pandemic-related issues, subsequently led the store to officially close its doors in January this year. However, fate had different plans for Robinsons.

Within months of its closure, it was purchased by Canningvale — their first overseas acquisition. Prainito says the desire to acquire the brand was a combination of a few factors. “We believe that the Robinsons brand is iconic, significant and worth saving, and Singaporeans want to see it come back and be successful once again.”

Drawn by its rich history and breadth of product offerings, Prainito feels Robinsons 2.0 is ready to be catapulted into the 21st century. “The global pandemic has expedited the mainstream adoption of online shopping. We think now is the right time to pivot to a digital-first strategy. We also strongly believe there is a market opportunity for a ‘less choice of better options’ value-focused online department store offering in Singapore and Southeast Asia.”

“We are excited to continue the legacy of the 163-year-old retail icon as an online department store focused on a high quality, compelling value curation strategy. In addition, we are committed to provide an excellent user-experience as well as prompt and attentive customer service that Singaporeans have come to know Robinsons for,” adds Prainito, who used to live and work in Singapore.

Robinsons Online officially went live on June 24 under the new management, Robinsons Department Store Online.

Quality and impeccable service

For savvy online shoppers accustomed to viewing thousands of retail products at a glance, Robinsons Online has adopted a “less is more” approach to the careful curation of its products by offering a smaller but premium selection of brands, some familiar, some homegrown and some new-to-market.

What it lacks in quantity, it makes up for in a sleek visually-appealing interface that is easy to navigate with trusted, safe and secure checkout. The promise of quality and impeccable customer service, which Robinsons is known for, are just some of the key aspects that are kept close to the heart of the brand’s online experience.

Currently, it stocks over 200 products spanning fashion, beauty, homeware and lifestyle categories. New merchandise is added every other day, which could bump up product offerings in time to come.

Candles by Canningvale - THE EDGE SINGAPORECandles by Canningvale

Zinus Hybrid Spring Mattress - THE EDGE SINGAPOREZinus Hybrid Spring Mattress

Well-known and loved for its home and lifestyle wares, Robinsons Online continues its legacy with new-to-Robinsons labels that include luxury home fragrance Baobab Collection from Belgium; high quality Canningvale bed linen, towels and scented candles from Australia; kitchen mixers from Swedish brand Ankarsrum; Zinus Mattresses from USA; exquisite Berrocal tissue boxes from Peru, and more.

For the women’s fashion category, there is sophisticated fashion apparel from the trailblazing American designer Anne Klein; luxury label Sara Miller London which sells dainty jewellery, beautiful watches and bags; and homegrown label Cloth.ier which uses fabrics made with the highest quality silk, cotton and bamboo linen; as well as merchandise from Jockey’s new Forever Fit and Parisienne collections.

Neal’s Yard Remedies Frankincense Intense Lift series - THE EDGE SINGAPORENeal’s Yard Remedies Frankincense Intense Lift series

Unveiling more new brands in the realm of beauty and wellness, shoppers can delight in Modern Apothecary from London; Jill Lowe Skin Care; Neal’s Yard Remedies; INVITY supplements; popular Korean hair and skincare brand Moremo; Korean holistic beauty and lifestyle brand Aromatica; homegrown brand PLAY by TUFT hair styling tools, and the list goes on.

Loyal Robinsons regulars would be pleased to know that there are more than 50 returning brands such as fashion labels The Station, Joan Allen and Coupe Cousu, and beauty and wellness brands Phyto, Rene Furterer, Kordel’s, Vitahealth and Morrocanoil.

Aromatica Jojoba Golden Barrier Oil - THE EDGE SINGAPOREAromatica Jojoba Golden Barrier Oil

Unfortunately, your old Robinsons membership cards will not work here as all rebates and rewards issued by the issuing bank have ceased. However, customers who register for an online account can look forward to regular online promotions, new arrivals, attractive deals and exclusive collaborations. All shoppers who sign up for the Robinsons newsletter will be rewarded with a $10 off discount code on their first purchase.

Robinsons Online has also partnered Grab to offer shoppers an additional 20% off with a minimum spend of $100 on all items by using the code “GRAB20” upon checkout, from now till to July 25. In addition, Robinsons customers can earn points that are redeemable on the Grab rewards network, depending on their mode of payment.

In this interview, Prainito tells Options about his plans to revive the beloved brand.

How is Robinsons Online different from competing retailers?
Robinsons Online is focused on delivering a best-in-class online shopping experience across all the major product categories. We are a value-orientated, specialist online department store that focuses on offering “less choice of better options”.

Consumers do not need 1,000 SKUs of T-shirts or candles. They want to see the best 50 for a certain price point. Historically, human nature has shown us that since the dawn of time, we’ve been wired for scarcity, we have long craved more, and that more was better. Now, abundance is generally the problem.

Robinsons Online is here to help consumers navigate many choices and complexity of options by only selling a “good, better, best” value merchandise at compelling prices and gifts with purchases (GWPs). We will empower consumers with the confidence in the decisions they make, not create more decisions to make.

More importantly, we set ourselves apart by offering an exceptional online experience, attractive brand offerings, as well as quality and reliable customer service. As we are still in the early stages of the launch, plans are in the pipeline to offer a fuller suite of services in Phases Two and Three. We will have exciting promotions, collaborations and events with our strategic partners, too.

What is your projected return on investment?
We cannot go into the specifics but I can only say that this is a multi-million-dollar undertaking. In terms of ROI (return on investment), instead of focussing on figures, we’d like to focus and put our customers first and ensure that every customer will be a returning customer, based on our value-oriented proposition of quality merchandise, well-curated options, personalised user experience and attentive after-sales service. That is our immediate ROI.

Assorted bathroom towels by Canningvale - THE EDGE SINGAPOREAssorted bathroom towels by Canningvale

What are some of the new brands on offer for the online store?
We are elated to have over 200 brands onboard for this relaunch. They include familiar brands that Robinsons customers love and trust, especially homegrown brands, which is a key focus for us as Singaporeans have an affinity towards them, as well as new to market brands that add freshness to the portfolio and attract new demographics.

Some of the featured brands include Berrocal Home Collection which sells 100% handmade interior home decoration products, La Perla Bed Linen which is renowned for its fabrics and craftsmanship, Ankarsrum which is a powerful stand mixer, and Big Jigs Toys which are renowned for their wood creation toys.

We will also sell Canningvale’s premium home, bedding and lifestyle products on the platform, however it will be run by our third-party distributor who we’ve been working with for a few years now.

What will customer service be like now that everything’s online?
We will continue to offer the impeccable customer service which Robinsons is renowned for in as many areas as possible such as delivery and personal shopping. For instance, we are working with our delivery partner to offer delivery service within two business days from the time that the order is fulfilled by the supplier and brand.

We are also currently developing a personal shopper strategy that will help those who prefer more personalised service, and have someone assist them throughout the online shopping experience. Initially, this will be reserved for VIP shoppers or “old” Robinsons customers, but we plan to make it available to everyone, once the next phase of the online platform is completed.

You mentioned that you have rehired former Robinsons staff. What positions have they been hired for?
Robinsons is a Singaporean icon, if it is to respond to the needs of Singaporeans, it must be run by the people who understand the market. Our head office is located in Singapore and we currently have a number of staff for this initial launch. We have already hired three on the ground in Singapore to assist with the relaunch — a general manager for merchandising and supply chain, as well as a merchandising manager, and most recently an account- ant. We are currently looking for a few roles such as marketing manager, ecommerce platform manager, a supply chain coordinator, and a few others.

Will bricks-and-mortar stores ever make a return?
Market trends and consumer behaviours are constantly evolving, so we cannot say for sure what the future might bring. Our ears are on the ground and we will pay attention to the needs of the customers.

Visit Robinsons Online at www.robinsons.com.sg