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‘A ghost town’: Orchard XChange shops suffer sluggish sales as landlord SMRT moves to take back units

SINGAPORE — Due to sluggish business and low foot traffic, the Orchard XChange shopping area has become a “ghost town”, tenants there said. They were recently asked to vacate the premises because landlord SMRT has chosen to take back most of the units.

‘A ghost town’: Orchard XChange shops suffer sluggish sales as landlord SMRT moves to take back units

Shops at Orchard XChange were mostly shuttered when TODAY visited around noon on June 3, 2021.

  • Tenants said that since 2018, only 50 per cent of the units there were occupied at a time
  • SMRT also made little effort to promote or market the place, they said.
  • The rail operator said it will have an anchor tenant to take over the area
  • It has plans to revamp its other centrally located XChanges

 

SINGAPORE — Due to sluggish business and low foot traffic, the Orchard XChange shopping area has become a “ghost town”, tenants there said. They were recently asked to vacate the premises because landlord SMRT has chosen to take back most of the units.

Orchard XChange is an underground circular shopping area, located above Orchard MRT Station and adjacent to Ion Orchard mall, though the exits to Ion have been closed to control crowds due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

A view of shuttered shops in Orchard XChange about noon on June 3, 2021, with the closed entrance to Ion Orchard mall in the distance. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY

Speaking to TODAY, the tenants said that they were sold a bustling food-and-beverage (F&B) concept by the rail operator, and they were told that about 70 to 75 per cent of the units would be occupied by the time they moved in.

However, since they took over the units in 2018, they estimated that, at most, only 50 per cent of the units have ever been occupied, and business has never picked up to what was expected.

They said that things were already bad before the pandemic but the situation worsened as a result of reduced patronage from lesser human traffic and use of MRT services, for example.

The tenants asked not to be named because they are still negotiating some outstanding rental issues with SMRT and are waiting for these discussions to be completed.

In response to TODAY’s queries, SMRT said that it will have an anchor tenant to take over the area, though it did not identify the prospective tenant and when it will be taking over the area.

Mr Daniel Chua, SMRT Properties’ general manager, said: “We plan to revamp our retail and F&B offerings at stations such as Dhoby Ghaut, Orchard and Tanjong Pagar, to bring in new experiences for our commuters and surrounding communities. 

“We will make them known in due course after finalising negotiations with prospective tenants.”

He did not specify how many units were being taken back by SMRT.

One of the affected tenants said that her shop, an F&B business, was able to make just S$400 a day and this was already better than some of her neighbours, who would only see S$50 to S$100 a day in sales.

Still, she said that what she earned was only enough to cover rental fees, but not the cost of manpower and materials. She declined to disclose how much she was paying each month.

Another tenant, who owns a hair salon and moved from a previous location to Orchard XChange in 2018, said that because of the poor business, a handful of her staff members gradually left as the salon was barely surviving on the revenue from its regular customers.

Some tenants chose to draw their shutters last year, even before SMRT took the units back around January this year. This only made the situation at Orchard XChange worse, the remaining tenants said.

“Last time, when (more F&B outlets) were open, at least there were some people around during lunchtime. But after they closed, you barely see anyone walking past,” the F&B shop owner said. 

NO HELP WITH PROMOTION

Even with the poor business, the tenants said that SMRT made little effort to spruce up the area or do anything to market the area and attract more customers.

A tenant who ran another F&B store said that during festive periods such as Christmas, Chinese New Year and Hari Raya Puasa, the tenants took it upon themselves to hang up decorations to attract customers.

“At Ion (next door), they brought in a Christmas band and everyone was attracted to go there. But ours, nothing, zero… No attractions, no footfall,” he said.

The first F&B shop owner said that when they asked the rail operator if they could put up posters or distribute flyers at the MRT station below, SMRT said that it would have to charge the tenants extra if they did so within the premises of the station.

“So we could not even do our own marketing,” she said.

They recalled that SMRT did some promotion, such as putting up offers on its Wink rewards mobile application, but the tenants said that these efforts did not bear any fruit.

Customers shopping in the area told TODAY that they were not even aware that there used to be shops at Orchard XChange even before the tenants moved out.

Domestic worker Chita Mora, 48, said that she stops by the area only when she wants to buy food from fast-food outlet Popeye’s, which was one of the three stores that were still open when TODAY visited last Thursday (June 3).

A shopper who wanted to be known only as Mr GG said that he only noticed the stores at Orchard XChange because he lives in the area and goes to Orchard Road frequently to shop or get takeaway. Still, he never patronised any of them when they were open.

‘DEAD MAN’S STREET’

TODAY’s checks at the other centrally located SMRT XChanges at Dhoby Ghaut, Raffles Places and Tanjong Pagar on Friday afternoon found footfall to be equally sparse, if not non-existent.

At Dhoby Ghaut XChange, more than half of the units did not appear to be occupied, while most of those that were occupied were not open for business.

The scene at Dhoby Ghaut XChange at 2.30pm on June 4, 2021. Photo: Tessa Oh/TODAY

An Ezbuy warehouse handler, who declined to be named, told TODAY in Mandarin that even before the pandemic, the area was usually very quiet with few customers frequenting the place.

When asked if SMRT has made an effort to promote the place, the handler said that she was not aware of any marketing campaigns by the rail operator and also does not pay much attention since the shop does not rely on footfall for business. The Ezbuy is just a unit where people go to collect their parcels.

Over at Tanjong Pagar XChange, tenants there said that traffic used to be bustling before the pandemic, owing to the lunchtime crowds from those working in the Central Business District.

But ever since the coronavirus outbreak, business in the area has fallen by at least 90 per cent as most workers are now working from home, especially in light of the tightened restrictions that were put in place last month.

The tenants did not want to be identified because they are afraid of being singled out by SMRT.

One shop owner said that she managed to sell just one pair of socks on the day TODAY visited her shop. Before the pandemic, she would see many customers patronising her store during lunchtime from 12pm to 2pm.

Shuttered shops at Tanjong Pagar XChange at about 4.30pm on June 4, 2021. Photo: Tessa Oh/TODAY

Making matters worse is the little-known location of Tanjong Pagar XChange, they said, and the many empty units give customers the impression that the whole stretch is closed for business.

Because of this, tenants have overheard customers calling it a “dead man’s street”.

The tenants said that they have not been given much rental relief and support from SMRT to tide over this period.

“We have been trying to ask SMRT to give us some assistance, but the assistance that they gave us, in the form of some rental rebate, is not enough to cover (our operation costs) at all,” one tenant who runs an F&B outlet said. The shop was given a 20 to 30 per cent rebate.

Selling only 30 boxes of items priced at S$6 a day, she said that it is nearly impossible for her to cover rental and overheads each month.

“How can we cope? I almost want to die already… I don’t really know how to move forward,” she said.

In response to TODAY’s queries, Mr Chua said that SMRT provides “targeted and sustained rental support” for its tenants now on a case-by-case basis.

This support includes restructuring of leases and additional rental assistance, he said.

Related topics

Covid-19 retail F&B tenants shopping Orchard XChange SMRT

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