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Mon, Dec 31, 2012
The Straits Times
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From retail mall to fashion wholesale centre
by Pearl Lee

YOU do not see shop owners in most malls sitting on the floors of their outlets sorting out their stocks but this is a common sight in City Plaza.

The retailers at this five-storey complex - known as Singapore's fashion wholesale centre - are especially busy on Mondays when goods from overseas arrive.

When The Straits Times paid a visit at 1pm on Monday, many in the shops were busy unpacking plastic-wrapped clothes from cardboard boxes and piling them on the floor. Plastic bags filled with clothes were stacked one on top of the other.

Sited between Guillemard and Tanjong Katong roads, the 31-year-old mall has gained a reputation since the late 1990s for being the biggest fashion wholesale mall here.

Shops selling women's wear predominate but it is also home to a smattering of businesses dealing in mobile phones, travel and financial services, and food.

It is on Mondays too that bulk-buying retailers often head to City Plaza to get a first-hand assessment of the new items.

Among them is Ms Han Shu Shuang, 19, who owns a blogshop and goes there about twice a week to source for goods.

"Usually on Mondays, because that's when the new clothes come in," said the student who has run her online shop for a year.

Blogshops, which have gained popularity in the past five years, are often run by enterprising youngsters. Since the rise of such businesses, City Plaza has seen an increase in young customers.

"I think most youngsters know about City Plaza and know that blogshops take their stock from there," said Ms Han.

"But I'm not worried about customers coming here directly to shop. They have to do bulk purchase or they can't buy at wholesale price," she added. She spends between $50 and $300 each time she is there.

Walk-in customers who usually buy only one or two pieces pay on average $30 to $80 an item, depending on the material and design. Retailers who buy in bulk - usually by the dozens - pay $13 to $20 an item. The discounts get bigger when they buy even more.

With most of the shops focusing on women's fashion, competition ensures that all possible market segments are catered to.

This means that 60-year-old Leow Bee Wah has no problems finding what she needs. "Orchard Road is for window shopping but if I need clothes, I will come here," said the seamstress.

"It has clothes suitable for my age and they are cheap," she said, referring to a pair of pants she snapped up for $18.

Those with longer memories know that City Plaza, which opened in 1981, used to be more of a retail mall.

Mr Richard Loh, 57, who has been doing business there for 30 years, said it was a hip fashion haven back in the 1980s. He ran a fabric store when the mall opened.

"Back then, we had a lot of customers from Malaysia and Brunei who would buy cloth to tailor-make baju kurung," he recalled. "There were many fabric stores then but there is only one left now," he said.

It was also at City Plaza that he met his wife. Madam Elaine Tan, now 51, was a sales assistant at her brother's shop, opposite Mr Loh's, in the 1980s.

They married in 1985 and, within three years, had closed the fabric store and set up a shoe shop, Tiptoe Collection, which eldest son Edwin, 26, now helps run.

With the change in customer preferences to ready-made clothes, more shops selling men's and women's wear started sprouting in City Plaza in the late 1980s.

Then, Singapore was a developing country and the cost of operating a clothing factory here was manageable. China had just started opening up to foreign businesses then.

Madam Tan, whose elder brother used to run a chain of fashion shops at City Plaza, said retailers from Malaysia and Indonesia turned up to buy clothes in bulk.

Gradually, businesses in the mall shifted from retail to wholesale.

One result is that City Plaza no longer attracts as many walk-in customers since it also looks dated, and with most shops peddling fairly similar items.

Still, its reputation as a wholesale centre has drawn new blood like 28-year-old Jasmine Lim, who took up space two years ago to provide wholesale services.

Apart from importing clothes from overseas, her shop, Makers Mart, also takes manufacturing orders from small retailers.

"They will come to us with the design they have in mind, and we will make it for them," said Ms Lim who graduated from Temasek Polytechnic in 2006 with a diploma in apparel design and merchandising.

"I'm a very hands-on person. I can source for fabric and approach factories in China with the design I have in mind and get them to make it," she said.

Half the clothes in her shop are self-designed while the rest are imports.

She knows she has to stay ahead of rivals because many shops offer similar services and walk-in traffic is low. "If an item is slow-moving, we will try to update its design by sewing beadings or appliques onto it," she said.

But even as most Singaporeans flock to newer malls, City Plaza - which has drawn talk of an en bloc sale given the development of Paya Lebar as a regional centre - still has a place in regulars' hearts.

Madam Peggy Pang, 65, drops in about thrice a month. "Even if some of the clothes don't suit me, I still come to take a look and visit the shopowners who have become friends," she said.

"But of course if I spot something trendy, I will buy it because I still have to dress to look young right?" she added.

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