Yaohan: Retail Giant in the 1970s

Posted by on Mar 11, 2016 in Memento | No Comments

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.

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– 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.

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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.

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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