If you’re a millennial in Singapore, you’ll definitely remember heading to Bugis with classmates after lessons (or during, no judgement here).
And it’s not exactly shopping in the air-conditioned Bugis Junction that we’re talking about – we’re talking about Bugis Street – the less glamourous, but nonetheless amazing, treasure throve of affordable clothes.
But what you probably don’t know is that its air-conditioned second level was conceptualised by a team of serial entrepreneurs.
What you probably also don’t know is that one of the team members, Henry Teo (41) is now running a new concept store at another side of Bugis – the photogenic hipster hangout that is Arab Street.
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I got in touch with Henry and found out more about his various ventures in Bugis, and also about his new business, FickleStore.
Entrepreneurs Since Year 2000
A diploma holder from LASELLE College of the Arts, Henry worked in the architectural department of Banyan Tree Resorts, where he met Gloria Lee (42), his business partner till now.
It was also where he and Gloria were inspired to start up their own business, G&H Bazaar, in 2000, where they sold soft furnishings (cushions, curtains, etc).
However, while starting up “was a breeze”, they soon faced the crushing reality of slow business.
Seeing that just sustaining their venture was getting increasingly difficult, they quickly pivoted to fashion retail the next year.
But there was more that they wanted to do in the Bugis area – and they saw that opportunity in 2003 at the then-underdeveloped Bugis Street area.
During that period of time (in the early 2000s), everyone wanted to start their own business, but getting a space in a malls is always beyond the reach of new startups.
“Bugis Street then was not a favourable place to start a business [because it was always subject to weather conditions], and shopping there was like having a free sauna!”
However, it was through their observation of space-tight countries like Hong Kong that the partners saw the potential in developing the underused second level of the shopping street.
“With that in mind came the enclosed shopping concept for Bugis Street – a place where customers could shop in comfort and retailers could function with no need to worry about the weather.”
However, Henry revealed that the space was taken back by the landlord once everything was functioning smoothly.
Not daunted, Henry gathered a group of like-minded friends in 2006 and co-founded Icon @ Bugis Point, just down the road from G&H Bazaar @ Tan Quee Lan.
Consisting of over 80 units, they converted Bugis Point, a former office building, into a retail space catered to the young and trendy.
However, this dream too came to a halt, when low foot traffic forced them to close down the operation.
Reflects Henry, “We suppose Singaporean shoppers were still not able to accept the idea of having to climb stairs in a shopping mall, and this affected the business (negatively).”
In spite of the setbacks that the duo faced in just a few years, G&H Bazaar still stood strong, and in 2008, they rebranded it with a new name, Indulg, shifting the store to Iluma shopping mall.
4 years later, they moved their store once again to Liang Seah Street.
“A lot has changed [for Indulg], from a backstreet store till now, but one thing that never changed was our mindset in providing the best service for our customers.”
Not Flipflopping On Flipflops
Since October this year, Indulg has moved to the 2nd level of a shophouse on Haji Lane – right above FickleStore, their latest venture.
Started in April this year, they decided to open a shop that sells customised flipflops to “suit the needs of the new generation”.
Most importantly, however, is that they believe a unique concept like such would help a brick and mortar store like themselves to survive through the boom of online shopping.
Brick and mortar shop are facing a crisis now. So [I think that to survive,] we must be able to evolve, and we must be able to provide better services for customers.
“Customers these days want things that are specially made for them – if not, they would just buy the cheapest thing online!”
“Being able to customise your own pair of flipflops is something that customers can’t do online – at least not with the type of experience they will have in my shop.”
I think that unless you are able to customise to the need of customers, brick and mortar stores will just keep closing down. We should be seeing this big change in the future. In every crisis there lies opportunity.
When asked about why they chose to settle at Haji Lane instead of another mall, Henry shared that they were not just enticed by its architectural beauty, but also by how its understated nature attracts tourists from around the world.
“The cultural experience is simply priceless. […] After all these years in business, we have discovered that a shopping mall was never really our spot to open a store.”
“A big part of our customers actually come from overseas, or are expats staying in Singapore.”
“We have invested our lifetime in this business, and it’s something that can never be measured.”
International Franchise Interest And Future Plans
Within just 2 months of opening, they have also received franchise interest from countries like China, Indonesia, France, Germany, Ivory Coast, and Israel.
However, no plans are set in stone yet, as they are still in talks with the interested parties.
What they are certain of, however, is that they’re not just stopping at customised flipflops.
“We are seeing possibility of more products in the near future, from accessories to bags. We’re even planning to create workshops where people can come to learn, and make things for themselves.”
“Eventually, we wish to evolve into a [lifestyle cafe] where people can come to have their things customised, [while spending their day at the cafe].”
FickleStore / Indulg
62 Haji Lane