In the mid-70s, Japanese department store company Yaohan opened its first outlet in Singapore, combining a supermarket and department store. This innovative concept was a hit with Singaporeans at the time, and paved the way for the introduction of such supermarkets island-wide.

– Shoppers selecting produce in Yaohan supermarket, 1991. Image Credit: National Archives of Singapore

Madam Ong Mui Lee remembers the snaking queues of shoppers waiting for trays of freshly-baked an pan – sweet rolls filled with red bean paste – to emerge from the ovens at Yaohan Thomson in the 1980s.

The delicious rolls were a hit and sold out so quickly that the store would display notice boards showing the times the next batches of an pan would be ready. While waiting for their turn, shoppers could watch the bakers hard at work in the open-view bakery.

Other shoppers, like Mrs Lily Heng, remember the 70-cent chicken wings at the supermarket. She adds that it was at Yaohan’s Plaza Singapura outlet where she had her first taste of Japanese food. Yaohan was the go-to place too, she recalls, for young parents who wanted to buy good quality children’s clothes from well-known Japanese brands like Tollyjoy.

Menswear department in Yaohan Department Store, 1991. Image Credit: National Archives of Singapore

A one-stop supermarket and department store, Yaohan was the leader in pioneering retail concepts that led to its early success in Singapore. The Japanese retailer opened its first outlet in Singapore in 1974 at the then-newly built Plaza Singapura shopping centre, occupying three floors of the mall. It was built at a cost of $13 million, as part of a joint venture with DBS Bank.

In an era where staff training wasn’t a big priority, Yaohan defied the trend by making its staff go through comprehensive service training. The retailer boasted a host of other perks for shoppers, such as an in-store play centre manned by trained child-minders, who would look after children while their parents shopped. Laundry and instant shoe-repair services were also introduced as new conveniences, while pre-packed food in both family and individual-sized portions were introduced to cater to patrons with hectic lifestyles.

Yaohan’s wide variety of merchandise was also a huge draw. With a huge selection of apparel, electrical appliances, toys and other products, Yaohan made its offerings appealing by grouping and displaying products strategically. With a whopping 16 supermarket and 19 department store check-out counters, waiting time for payment was kept to a minimum as well.

Woman shopping at the menswear department in Yaohan Department Store, 1991. Image Credit: National Archives of Singapore

Throughout the late 70s and early 80s, Yaohan expanded aggressively, opening successive outlets in Katong, Thomson, Bukit Timah, Jurong and Marine Parade. The new outlets extended away from the city centre, a move towards marketing Yaohan as a place for the masses. As former Yaohan patron Irene Kwek recalls, Yaohan was the supermarket “for everyone”, while those who were looking for a Liang Court, which carried a host of designer labels including Dunhill and Lanvin.

Competition at the time was fierce, however, and Yaohan faced the challenge of keeping its business running as more supermarkets and department stores took up anchor tenancies at the various shopping malls. The advent of other Japanese retailers such as Daimaru also diverted some of Yaohan’s customers – including the Japanese expatriate community and food-loving Singaporeans – who flocked to its wide selection of eateries, which included an Italian fast-food joint and sushi bar.

Even so, then-Yaohan president Kazuo Wada pressed on with expansion plans, undertaking a minimart franchise venture in an attempt to double its earnings by 1990. The flagship Plaza Singapura outlet was overhauled at a cost of $6 million, and new product offerings – such as electronic goods and home furnishings – were introduced.

Sadly, the arrival of Takashimaya department store (which still exists today) on the local retail scene in 1993 may have sounded the death knell for Yaohan, with a new retail approach that was a runaway success. To add to Yaohan’s woes, its early strategy of renting – rather than constructing – its premises to keep costs down began to backfire as rental costs increased.

As its debts ballooned, Yaohan was forced to cut costs and its Bukit Timah outlet closed in 1996. The chain’s flagship outlet at Plaza Singapura, along with its other outlets, was shuttered in 1997, after a massive clearance sale that attracted thousands of shoppers, making a beeline for brand-name clothing, accessories and other products. Ernst and Young, the provisional liquidator at the time, estimated that Yaohan had up to $4 million in unsold stock that had to be sold at deep discounts.

Jeans from top labels like Armani and Calvin Klein went for a mere $30, down from $109, while Dunhill coin purses were a steal at $22, from their original $125. Friven comforters and bedsheets sold like hot cakes too, marked down by almost half. And for children, the highlight was the $2 Ninja Boy toy sets, slashed from their original $14.90.

Though shoppers had a field day bargain hunting, some, that Yaohan’s closure left him feeling a wave of nostalgia, as he had shopped there for groceries every weekend. “The bargains are good but getting them at the expense of Yaohan closing down makes me quite sad,” he said.

Words by Liew Hanqing
Published by the Singapore Memory Project

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