Orchard Central: From Dying to Thriving

When it rains, it pours. In 2009, three shopping malls opened along Orchard Road in succession–Orchard Central, ION Orchard and 313@Somerset. Prior to this, there had been no new mall openings along Singapore's prime shopping belt in over a decade.

Both ION Orchard and 313@Somerset found their footing and thrived rather quickly, in part because they were located right next to the MRT, and in part due to their selection of tenants. Meanwhile, Orchard Central struggled.

It's not hard to see why. While ION Orchard stuffed the upper levels with luxury brands and populated the basement levels with more mainstream F&B and fashion options, a guaranteed recipe for success, Orchard Central didn't have any big names to speak of. Instead, Orchard Central mainly comprised a diverse mix of small, 'indie' fashion boutiques and salons, interspersed with F&B options that, while appealing, were hardly visible unless you made the effort to explore the upper floors. Compounding the issue was the mall's layout–the mall was a labyrinth of narrow corridors that made it difficult for shops to be discovered.

In other words, Orchard Central felt like a newer, more polished version of Far East Plaza (FEP), which is not surprising given that the developer and majority owner of Orchard Central is Far East Organization (FEO). Perhaps FEO thought that it could replicate FEP's success by following the same formula. What FEO failed to realise that FEP succeeded in spite of its flaws. FEP opened during a time when there was far less competition along Orchard Road, allowing it to easily establish itself as the place of choice for affordable youth clothings, hair and nail salons, reputable mobile phone shops and cheap cafeteria food on the upper levels. Furthermore, it had Metro as its anchor tenant in the early years

Meanwhile, Orchard Central had to compete against the likes of Wisma Atria, Ngee Ann City, Orchard Cineleisure, ION Orchard, 313@Somerset and Plaza Singapura on the other end of the road. Without the likes of Zara, Cotton On and Forever 21 (which 313@Somerset so cleverly brought in), it was difficult to draw the crowds in. There was a sizeable crowd at The Editor's Market during the festive period and on weekends, but that was about it. Orchard Central didn't even have a food court.

And despite its name, Orchard Central was anything but in its early years. Though it was situated very near to Somerset MRT, you had to enter and exit 313@Somerset and walk through a makeshift sheltered walkway in order to reach Orchard Central. It was only after Orchardgateway was completed in 2014 that Orchard Central would finally be linked up with Somerset MRT.

It was also around this time that FEO finally realised what it had to do to bring in the crowds. It announced in late 2015 that it would embark on major renovation works, including reconfiguring its walkways and bringing in Uniqlo as its anchor tenant. It also took the opportunity to revamp its F&B mix, bringing in popular names like Nunsaram, Dancing Crab, Lady M, Tanuki Raw,  Morganfield's and Tony Roma's.

By the end of 2016, Orchard Central was visibly more busy than before. Uniqlo's flagship store being spread over three floors had the benefit of bringing in spillover traffic to shops on the upper floors. So did the seamless link between 313@Somerset, Orchardgateway and Orchard Central on multiple floors.

And then FEO showed its final hand–by bringing in Don Quijote (aka Don Don Donki) to Singapore in December last year, occupying the entire B2 level and a large portion of B1. It was a good move, as it optimised the use of previously empty/ low traffic storefronts. Despite the novelty having worn off by now, Don Don Donki still enjoys brisk shopper traffic, even in the middle of the night (I was there).  The bottom few floors of Orchard Central have become somewhat of a 'little Japan', with Uniqlo, Matcha House, Tokyu Hands, Zoff, Don Don Donki and the recently launched Hokkaido Marche occupying the bulk of these floors. It seems to be working out just fine. In fact, I think Orchard Central is performing far better than expected, given the poor retail outlook along Orchard Road these days.

My only gripe? The toilets aren't as clean as before and it's no longer a conducive place to do group projects or have group discussions (I used to do so at Quiznos Sub (no longer there) as it was really quiet and had power plugs).