Shopping on his mind

CK Tang chairman Tang Wee Sung is constantly seeking fresh inputs to finetune the service and merchandise at Tangs stores to provide an enjoyable experience for customers.

HOW does a grand old dame stay desirable in a challenging retail market, and try to beat competition from not only other shops and malls, but also the ever-growing popularity of online shopping?

"By always focusing on the customer," says Tang Wee Sung, chairman of CK Tang Ltd.

Tangs, one of Singapore's most iconic department stores, celebrates its 83rd birthday this year. CK Tang was started by his father, Tang Choon Keng, who passed away in 2000. The late Mr Tang, who arrived in Singapore from China, went door to door selling linens and lace. He later sold jewellery, baskets, and Chinese curios, and also non-Oriental goods such as cosmetics, toys, and other Western merchandise to keep up with the times and demands of its customers.

Back in the day, CK Tang catered to British colonial administrators and expatriates, and the wealthy Eurasians and Chinese.

"Now we are targeting the upper middle to lower upper class, but our customer base spills downwards too," says Mr Tang, adding that most of Tangs' shoppers are in their 20s to 40s.

Whereas department stores such as Tangs and Robinsons used to dominate the retail scene, "now Singapore is full of stores and we have to find ways to differentiate ourselves", he says.

The company regularly conducts focus groups among its shoppers, and also depends largely on its staff to get feedback from customers. Armed with the necessary feedback, "we churn it in our minds and change", he says.

For example, Tangs' fashion direction in the past was seen as dowdy, but now "we have changed to ensure that we have the right kind of merchandise", says Mr Tang.

To help improve on the store's fashion offerings, he has hired a creative director, Christelle Vaillant, a former Paris-based fashion designer, editor and buyer. Ms Vaillant has worked with Harper's Bazaar magazine, as well as Lane Crawford and On Pedder. "Christelle will work on colours and silhouettes, so buyers will go out with a clear direction," says Mr Tang. The role of a creative director is something new for the company. "I felt that we needed more cohesion in our fashion, from the way we buy to the way it is presented."

Mr Tang is all for bringing in new blood to the company. "I'm 62, and I can still work, but I need fresh points of view. That's what I'm looking for. From my business experience, I can tell you if that will or will not work."

Despite having spent 40 years in the retail business, he says that there are still things that keep him up at night. "I think about the store, what I need to do, but I try to push all that aside," he says. "The only time I switch my mind off work is when I'm in church."

Now it is about finetuning the service, the merchandise, and about revamping its VivoCity store, which opened in 2006. "We opened the same time that VivoCity opened, and didn't have the knowledge of the shopping crowd there at that time. But now that we have had the store there for nine years, I think we have to change," he says. "A lot of young people go there, we have to skew our offerings to them, and to the heartland crowd." For example, the VivoCity store carries pressure cookers to cater to the market there.

For him, there's the constant need to take service and merchandise beyond present levels. "Service-wise, we can always be better in our recommendations to our customers," he says. "We don't want to pull out things that the customer will not wear, so we have to size up the customer first."

He adds that customers have become more discriminating. "Even though the Singaporean shopper is willing to spend, they still want value for money."

His immediate goal now is to get the stores up to expectations. "And I have to say our expectations are high."

Just what would be an ideal store? Mr Tang cites an example of how a Japanese store is "predictable but they provide good service". But in Italy, "the way they display the merchandise is inspiring". His plan is to take the best of different shops "and put together all the elements that made me enjoy a shopping experience".

He rattles off a list of must haves. "Atmosphere - the store ambience must make shoppers feel relaxed, and not be feel intimidated."

It must have a local flavour, he adds. "You want shoppers, Singaporeans or tourists, to know where they are." He does this through food, and through a subtle floral motif detailing that runs through the store. "Service must be friendly, along with an easy to navigate floor plan."

Ultimately, a good store must be entertaining for the shopper. "Not like an amusement park, but always offering the shopper a surprise, whether it is through the merchandise, or through its layout."

He openly admits that he does check out the competition. "Any self-respecting retailer would do that," he says. "But I try not to get spotted at another store. But sometimes it is hard, as the promoters know me, and I have ex-staff working at these places."

Selfridges in London, and the Isetan stores in Tokyo are his favourites, "because they are very innovative".

After the revamp of the Singapore stores is done, he has his sights set on overseas expansion. But he is in no hurry to do that. "I think it is important to handle the present outlets, and get them right, before considering opening others. If the foundation is not strong, and you merely open for the sake of doing so, you are just replicating your weaknesses," he says. "So quality before quantity."

Tangs Kuala Lumpur in StarHill Shopping Centre opened in 1995, but two years later, the Asian financial crisis struck, hitting businesses hard. The StarHill store was sold in 2001, and the store closed the following year.

The Tangs Orchard store recently completed its three-year, S$45 million revamp. The look of the new Tangs is now fresher, more open and contemporary. It has revamped spaces and brought in new apparel, accessory and shoe brands such as Aijek, By Malene Birger, Vivienne Tam, Eddie Borgo, APM Monaco, Pamela Love and LK Bennett.

The feedback that he has received is that "everyone likes it". Still, there is always the worry that while people like the store, they may not be spending. "So we always look at figures before and after a revamp. So far, customers are buying items from our new brands. With more brands coming in, we hope to transform the image of the store, and aim correctly at our target customer."

Mr Tang is cautious about entering e-commerce in a big way. Tangs does offer online shopping but only for shipping within Singapore. "It works if you are a big chain, because there are issues such as warehousing, delivery systems, international shipping taxes to consider. For a company our size, it would be difficult to do in a comprehensive way," he says. "But I wouldn't rule out doing e-commerce if we can find the right partner."

Mr Tang takes pride in knowing that customers and staff fully trust the brand. "We have customers and staff that have been with us for a long time. That familiarity is good for the company."

He explains that long-time staff will be familiar with customers who shop at the store over the years, and "they will have a history of what the customer likes".

Staff at Tangs are highly valued. "I'm always pushing my staff, but I'm very blessed to have capable people," he says. At Tangs, there are movie days for staff, and the company gathers together for Christmas and Chinese New Year lunches.

If you think that a high point in his career was when he became chairman in 1995, Mr Tang, the second of three sons, shakes his head. "I was thrust into this position, so I can't say that that was a high point."

Asked to pick a high and low point, it turns out to be the same venture, but several years apart.

"In 1988, I opened Tangs Studio, our first lifestyle store at the old Scotts Shopping Centre. Today, Tangs has embraced that studio concept, and is an entire Studio Tangs," he says.

Buoyed by the success of Tangs Studio, Mr Tang opened a second one in Ngee Ann City in 1991, which was almost 10 times the size of the first. Unlike the Scotts store, the Ngee Ann City store didn't have that intimacy and that specialness. "It became another department store selling high-priced goods, and customers became alienated," says Mr Tang of the failed venture.

Looking back, Mr Tang says that he was "overly ambitious and too arrogant after opening the first Studio".

The failure of the Kuala Lumpur venture remains a sore point. "We went ahead with the store opening because we had already signed the contract."

Lessons learnt? "Minimise your risk. You cannot go on gut feel. Gut feel is just the beginning, but you have to verify with numbers."

The business stress then also left him with a host of health problems, including diabetes and kidney failure. Back in 2009, he made news for trying to buy a kidney from an Indonesian man, and was fined and subsequently jailed for a day. He has since received a new organ and today, he says his health is fine. "I've cut back on activities, but I'm still doing what I want to do. I get edgy when there is nothing to do."

He used to walk the shop floor every day, but now does it about once or twice a week. "I've got capable people to do that now," he says.

But there are two things about the store that he refuses to let go of, "because these areas are where I can contribute the most".

The first is food. Mr Tang, the serious foodie, has the final say in the food options that Tangs offers. It was his decision to have Malaysian and Singaporean hawker food in the basement of the Orchard store. The idea is also part of his mission to inject heritage into the store. "Heritage shows how far we have come, and also is a reflection of the country."

Elsewhere in the store, there is a Tiong Bahru Bakery on the first floor, The Providore cafe on the second, and the Island Cafe on the fourth floor.

The second aspect of store operations that Mr Tang still holds on to is the shopping experience, which is about store design and service. "Again, these points are geared towards making the customer happy."

Mr Tang says that it was natural for him to want to join the family business. "Yes, without a doubt. I've always wanted to."

He shares stories about how, during his college days in California, weekends were spent checking out Macy's, Neiman Marcus and Saks 5th Avenue. Back then, on a student budget, he bought mostly "clothes and shoes".

He confesses that he is still very much a shopper today. "Now I have a passion for antiques and jade, which we used to sell, as well as paintings."

With such a big legacy to carry on, how does Mr Tang think his father would rate his performance? "Well, back then, he was happy to have someone to hand the business to. If he was still alive, he would look at me now, and be happy that I have kept his values, and haven't strayed too far from what he set out the company to be."

The Tangs group was founded upon the core values of honesty, integrity and providing value, he points out.

The company has a set of mission statements that they follow, which include continually setting trends and responding to changing needs by being innovative and creative, providing quality products and services with a vibrant and entertaining experience, fostering close relationships and understanding with its customers, staff and business partners, being an employer of choice that engages, develops and rewards staff and playing an active part in social, environmental and charitable causes.

"My father's values are all encapsulated in these statements, which essentially is the recipe of success for Tangs," says Mr Tang.


Chairman, CK Tang Ltd

Born: 6 May 1953, Singapore


1970-1974: BSc in Business Administration, Menlo College, California (Magna Cum Laude)

Career (all positions at CK Tang Ltd)

1975-1977: Assistant to general manager

1977-1981: Operations manager

1981-1987: General manager

1987-1991: Managing director

1991-1995: Group managing director

1995-1999: Chairman & group managing director

1999-2006: Chairman & CEO

2006-2008: Executive chairman

2013-Present: Chairman

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