The changing face of Christmas shopping

  • With the rise of e-commerce marketplaces and concerns for the ongoing pandemic, has the spirit of Christmas shopping as we knew and loved growing up died?
  • TheHomeGround Asia takes a trip back in time with former shop floor staff and checks out departmental stores to find out.
A limited-edition Robinsons gift bag that was circulated in 1994. (Photo courtesy of Betty Low)
A limited-edition Robinsons gift bag that was circulated in 1994. (Photo courtesy of Betty Low)

Despite the retail sector being badly battered by the Covid-19 pandemic and the threat of the new Omicron variant, crowds still thronged Orchard Road on the weekend before Christmas, packing the malls as people shopped for gifts. 

But not too long ago it was a totally different story. It was a quiet affair last year despite the shopping district all decked in fairy lights from Tanglin Mall to Plaza Singapura. It seemed as if someone up there had other nefarious plans. The street activities had been scaled back amid the epidemic to minimise crowds and ensure the safety and health of shoppers.

While Singaporeans who are locked in the country were content to be out admiring the lights and overhanging decorations in a rather muted sense, no one was actually spending money buying gifts for the festive season.

Yet the scene along Singapore’s shopping belt this year is a reminiscence of Orchard Road in the 1980s, the 1990s and even the early 2000s, say some former staff of Robinsons, a departmental store that shut its brick-and-mortar stores in 2020, after more than 160 years in Singapore.

A Christmas themed window display in Robinsons Centrepoint, 1994. (Photo courtesy of Betty Low)
A black and gold themed window display in Robinsons Centrepoint, in the 1990s. (Photo courtesy of Betty Low)

Christmas shopping in malls

The days leading up to Christmas from the 1970s to the late 1990s had been hard work for the staff at Robinsons but the atmosphere, lights and music lit up those work days, says former department manager Betty Low. The 70-year-old worked at Robinsons for 29 years, from 1989 and retired in 2018. She says that Robinsons was important to Singaporeans because of its high standards of service. 

Robinsons’ staff with CEO Allan French in 1990. (Photo courtesy of Betty Low)

Ms Low cites the good customer service, staffs’ positive disposition and greetings for every walk-in customer as central to the unique experience that Robinsons offered. She also believes in serving and building rapport with customers to curate “a highly personalised shopping experience”. “Robinsons merchandise and floor layout (were also) unique and…exclusive”, she adds.

Ms Low says she “dearly misses the Christmas-themed decorations, the regular customers, the LED lights that lit up the whole mall and the traditional Christmas red and green lights” that were recurring features at the Robinsons stores. 

The staff at Robinsons also used to have their own Christmas celebration at the staff pantry, where Christmas foods were shared, says Ms Low. A live-band would play Christmas tunes outside the Centrepoint store. These “brought about a magical atmosphere to staff and shoppers”, she adds.

Live band playing Christmas tunes outside of Robinsons Centrepoint, in the 1990s. (Photo courtesy of Betty Low)

For retired store manager Shirley Soon, 71, who worked at Robinsons from 1983 to 2003, her fondest memories included watching live performances by famous singers like former Singapore Idol vocal coach Babes Conde. Mr Philip Wee, 75, another store manager in the 1990s, adds that Ms Conde would be singing at a grand piano, wowing customers with her vocals.

Ms Soon’s fondest memory was the large Christmas Trim Shop, where a wide variety of imported and local merchandise were sold. Then Robinsons also boasted the best toy department in Singapore, proving a hit with shoppers who wanted to buy presents for Christmas, she recalls. Mr Wee adds that Robinsons “specially imported” many toys to support its position as the number one place for toys during the festive season.

Both Ms Soon and Ms Low agree that the large Christmas gift wrap counter was a mainstay of the Christmas shopping experience at the store. Items bought from Robinsons would be wrapped with the shop’s own wrapping paper, boxes and matching bags — no minimum purchase required. These Christmas-themed shopping bags were also “memorabilia worth fighting for”, says Ms Soon. Ms Low adds that some of the staff were also trained in Japanese-style gift wrapping, and showed off their skills at customers’ request. 

Robinsons was the only store then with meet-and-greet sessions with Santa Claus. Ms Soon recalls vividly excited children and parents swarming around Santa’s armchair in front of a fireplace, waiting for the opportunity to get a great photo. 

Robinsons’ meet and greet with Santa Claus, 1968. (Photo courtesy of Judith Tan)

All these festivities were happening amid Christmas music that would constantly play through the store. Popular tunes include Jingle Bells, Felix Navidad, and Deck the Halls, says Ms Low, adding that customers and staff alike would usually hum and sing along. These will be sorely missed as more shops and shoppers turn to e-commerce to get what they want.  

Today, Ms Low and Ms Soon say that they do not visit shopping malls during the festive season.

Instead of presents, they give loved ones angbaos (cash gifts). Ms Low explains that it is harder to select appropriate gifts for her “nephews and nieces as they have grown up”. Instead, an angbao ensures that they have the freedom to choose the best possible gift for themselves, she says.

Ms Low also avoids online shopping, citing credit-card security concerns. She adds that there is a timeless charm when shopping for items in person, as it allows her to ”touch and feel” products before making an informed purchase. 

Despite more customers, particularly the young, opting for e-commerce options, other local retailers such as TANGS have managed to still attract customers to their brick-and-mortar stores. 

When TheHomeGround Asia reached out to TANGS for an interview, it declined but its press release says the departmental store represents “an authentic scene of a local Christmas in our garden city… by incorporating tropical elements such as the lush wildlife in Singapore against a backdrop of festive trimmings”. 

“Through the years, TANGS has always honoured its long-standing commitment in supporting homegrown brands. In the same spirit, TANGS The Christmas Store partners with up to 65 local brands to celebrate the festive season. As a homegrown retailer, the culture of TANGS was born from a rich heritage of championing local talent. Believing that local businesses form the heartbeat of the nation, TANGS showcases the works proudly made by Singaporeans, for Singaporeans — to celebrate a meaningful Christmas,.” the press release said.

Rising popularity of eCommerce in Singapore 

With the increase of the use of mobile devices globally, it has contributed to the growth of eCommerce. ECommerce marketplaces have been on the rise around the world since the mid-1990s with the launch of giants Amazon, Alibaba, and in Singapore, Lazada and Shopee.

According to the United Nations trade and development experts, the e-commerce sector saw a “dramatic” rise in its share of all retail sales, from 16 per cent to 19 per cent in 2020 and as eCommerce continues to entice shoppers all over the world, its effects are greatly felt in Southeast Asia. 

A survey conducted by Facebook and Bain&Company found that the number of digital shoppers will reach 350 million by the end of 2021, and 360 million by 2026. The contributing factors: Restrictions on group sizes and social distancing measures resulting in consumers staying at home and shopping online has allowed eCommerce markets to thrive. 

The survey also found that Southeast Asians who shop “mostly online” have increased from 33 per cent in 2020 to 45 per cent this year, with Singaporeans contributing the most to these figures. This trend is only likely to intensify this Christmas, following fears of the Omicron variant.

Is the spirit of Christmas shopping still relevant amid eCommerce?

According to Ms Sweet Ee Chin, who heads marketing at eCommerce firm Amazin Graze, it certainly is. She says that demand for the products at her company during the Christmas season has “always been high, (but) higher during the pandemic”. 

Ms Sweet says Christmas gifting has mostly changed during Covid-19. Christmas shoppers have moved away from face to face shopping and gifting to sending gifts to their friends or loved ones via an eCommerce service. She adds that more people are also purchasing gift cards or arranging for orders to be delivered straight to the recipients. 

She says during the early stages of the pandemic, convenience and safety were paramount to customers. As most brick-and-mortar stores were closed then, “eCommerce players took the opportunity to increase (their) services and pricing competitiveness significantly.” She adds that before the pandemic, eCommerce platforms only hosted 11.11, Black Friday and 12.12 sales. Now, most businesses offer monthly sales.

Ms Sweet says that most consumers have formed a habit of online shopping which is likely to continue. There is “(no need to) carry 10 bags through the mall… (these items can be) delivered straight to their doorsteps.”

Even though eCommerce businesses operate without a physical location, they actively manage to convey the festive cheer to consumers. Ms Sweet believes that the Christmas atmosphere is vital to shoppers, even as they shop online.

“(The Christmas spirit) inspires us, and makes us happy! It’s like walking into Disneyland, and reigniting happy memories,” she says, adding that it is especially important during these tough times to ramp up Christmas because it is a “magical season which only happens once a year. … It reminds us that new beginnings are coming.”


The Amazin Graze office is decorated with festivities to bring on the Christmas cheer. (Photo courtesy of Sweet Ee Chin)

Ms Sweet believes that, “gifting makes both recipient and giver happy”. According to her, eCommerce firms usually “carefully craft” the journey of buying and receiving Christmas gifts. Christmas-themed products are also marketed during this period. Some firms even collaborate with talented artists to create exclusive and unique designs and offer customised options to customers. 

Despite the measures taken by both eCommerce firms and brick-and-mortar stores to get into the mood for the holiday season, Mr Wee believes that the “Christmas shopping experience is magical, only when there is a human touch (to it)”. He says that “aesthetic decorations and music alone, cannot replace the feeling of watching a live band perform”. 

Still, Ms Low believes that the Christmas spirit of giving and its magic is everlasting, regardless of whether Singaporeans prefer to shop online or at the stores themselves. 

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