Malaysian

Robinsons Survived Many Global Crises Including WW2, But Lost The Fight To COVID-19

Over the weekend, many queued for hours to grab clearance deals from Robinsons which will be closing down all remaining stores in Malaysia and Singapore for good.

It falls victim to the Covid-19 pandemic which has seen a significant reduction in consumer demands this year.

The outlet at The Gardens Mall has been operating for more than 13 years while the one at The Shoppes at Four Seasons Place only opened two years ago.

While Robinsons as a brand has suffered from heavy losses for the past 6 years and COVID-19 was the final nail in the coffin, it’s had quite the survival record for the past 160 years.

It’s weathered many storms from a financial crisis, World War II, The Great Depression, a fire, and an oil crisis. 

Robinsons documented its story in their corporate book, The Story of Robinson’s, where The Star highlighted some excerpts over 10 years ago.

When An Immigrant Meets A Jailkeeper

Robinsons’ story began in 1858 with Philip Robinson, an Australian immigrant and James Gaborian Spicer, a former Singapore jailkeeper.

The two had set up shop as Spicer and Robinson as a “family warehouse” in Singapore.

Less than 2 years after the partnership, Spicier pulled out and the company was renamed Robinsons & Co. 

Unlike most stores at the time who would set up more outlets countrywide to attract customers, Robinson developed his business a different way. 

He hired travelling salesmen to canvass in the Malay Archipelago and Borneo. 

Many of the Malay Rulers were among his customers, as well as King Mongkut of Siam, who was then the most powerful ruler in South-East Asia.

Close to the end of 1864, a financial crisis saw the crash of firms and many stores closing down, but Robinsons managed to survive during this time.

Robinsons in Kuala Lumpur, 1970 / Image Credit: Ashley Tang on Pinterest

Phillip Robinson passed away in 1881 and his son, Stamford Raffles Robinson, took over the business in 1886.

The 1890s saw the company doing more business than ever before in Malaysia, which was then known as the Malayan states. 

The company launched a large advertising campaign in the newspapers and increased its number of travelling salesmen. 

In the early 1990s, Robinsons stocked musical instruments as most homes had a piano, horn, or gramophone. Sometimes all three. 

According to The Star, Robinsons was among the first agents for Raleigh bicycles globally when they started selling the bikes in 1907. 

People had access to a cheap form of transportation aside from walking for the first time. 

By 1958, Robinson’s had sold over half a million Raleigh bicycles.  

Staying Open Despite A Japanese Bombing

The company opened up its main store in Kuala Lumpur in 1928, just before the start of the Great Depression came.

In April 1932, the Straits Times reported that Robinson & Co lost S$233,745 from the effect of the continued Depression. 

One of the factors was because its chairman refused to sell the store’s goods at lower qualities and more affordable prices to preserve the brand’s reputation.

For 70 years, we have been building a reputation for quality. It would have been most short-sighted to sacrifice our reputation by letting down the quality of the stock.

The Story of Robinson’s, highlighted by The Star.

The company rode out the storm and made its first profit of S$25,355 in 1936.  

This led Singapore’s Robinsons to move to a bigger building in Raffles Place, located in the country’s financial district. 

Come December 1941, The Japanese had bombed Raffles Place, which blew out the front of the store. 

Robinsons however, stayed put and advertised “Open as Usual” on their door the next day. 

It suffered damage and was attacked again in February 1942.

When the British returned to Singapore in 1945, the Robinsons building served as their headquarters.

Namely, the British Navy, Army and Air Force Institute and the Entertainments National Service Association—the entertainment and service organisations of the Allied forces.

Back in Malaya, allied troops were running short of supplies. 

The manager of Robinson’s Kuala Lumpur branch stepped in to provide hundreds of camp beds, food and clothing supplies. 

One of the former chairmen of the company, W. H. MacGregor, died in captivity in 1942. 

Surviving The Fire

The Raffles Place store reopened in April 1946. For the first time in history, business flourished and earned a profit of $1 million.

Robinson’s became the first store in the Far East to be fully air-conditioned in 1955. 

That same year, the company acquired a 76% interest in the capital of John Little (Malaya) Ltd, a former department store chain.  

In November 1972, the Raffles Place outlet caught on fire, which reduced the building to rubble. 

Nine people died in the blaze and the store moved to Specialist’s Shopping Centre on Orchard Road.

As a result of the 1973 oil crisis, the Kuala Lumpur branch on Jalan Tun Perak Masjid Jamek closed down in 1975. 

The building was acquired by United Asian Bank in 1976, and it was demolished to make way for the bank’s headquarters, now known as Menara UAB. 

Inside of Robinsons at Four Seasons Place / Image Credit: Robinsons

Robinson’s made a comeback in Kuala Lumpur in 2007 after a thirty-two year absence when its new store opened at The Gardens, Mid Valley City. 

A second store opened at Four Seasons Place, located next to the Petronas Towers. 

This marked the return of Robinsons to Kuala Lumpur’s central business district.

Joining Other Names Hit By The Pandemic

A Robinsons department store operator said that large name retailers in the world have exited the industry and cited a study on retail trends.

Additionally, he shared that more than half of mall-based department stores will close in the next five years. 

Some famous names have already fallen victim to the pandemic. 

For example, H&M has reported a loss of over RM1.4 billion during the second quarter as sales fell greatly due to the pandemic.

It will shut down 170 of its outlets worldwide and focus on online business instead.

Esprit announced that it will be closing down all its Asian outlets (excluding China) by June 30.

“Similarly, in Malaysia, the retail industry recorded the worst growth rate in 33 years with the outlook remaining negative for the remaining months of the year as consumers are expected to tighten their spending,”

Department store operator said in The Edge Markets

Datuk Robert Teo Keng Tuan of RSM Malaysia has been appointed as interim liquidator who will take control of the company’s assets.

RSM Malaysia will also look through options to realise Robinsons’ value to maximise returns to its creditors. 

Until this is done, the stores will remain open for a few more weeks to facilitate final sales for customers before they shut down. 

As of now, Robinsons stores in Singapore will undergo a similar liquidation process.

  • You can learn more about Robinsons here.
  • You can read more about other Robinsons related articles here.

Featured Image Credit: Robinsons

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