Just like the beloved snack cake Twinkies was rescued from the depths of its owner's bankruptcy, Borders, a longtime staple among US retail bookstores, is getting a new chance at life thanks to a few global bookstore lovers that snatched up trademarks and intellectual property rights at auction after the brand went bust in 2011.
When it was announced recently that Borders would resurface in Singapore before the year's end, book lovers and sellers alike greeted the news with cautious optimism. After all, Borders Singapore—which had operated under the independent Borders Asia Pacific—quickly became one of Singapore's most iconic and loved bookstores when it opened in 1997—even emerging as the group's best performing outlet in 2006—but it quickly met its demise in September 2011 after its owner, Australia's Redgroup Retail, fell to a similar fate as its US counterpart.
In Singapore, the store's demise then seemed inevitable, bankruptcy or not, as loyal customers became disgruntled at the deep discounts offered to non-members and customers at large were baffled by the store's poor book selection and foray into non-book items like toys and cookware. The frequent sales also created a discount mentality amongst customers, eating into margins. Globally, the group's late foray into e-books and its big push into sunset product categories such as music CDs were also cited for its demise.
Borders' Singapore trademarks, country-specific domain names and intellectual property were acquired in early 2012 by Popular Holdings, which bid $100,000 at auction for the assets. The Singapore-based publisher, distributor and retailer, which opened its first bookstore in 1936, had to outbid Malaysia's Berjaya Books for the local rights. The company, which operates the premium Prologue-brand of stores in the country, is attempting a bait and switch as it plans to close its flagship Prologue store in Ion Orchard mall, citing high rental costs, and instead open a new Borders store in Western Singapore.
To entice consumers, the company distributed coupons complete with cryptic messages such as. "Prologue Borderless Closure?" It also offered the existing Borders customer base a $24 Borders coupon in exchange for spending a minimum amount at Prologue before it closes on August 25.
Still, Borders is returning to a very different, more competitive Singapore retail market. The new Westgate Mall location is vastly different from the brand's previous flagship in the heart of Orchard Road. It will also face direct competition from Japanese bookstore brand Kinokuniya, which operates next door and has a 30-year history in the country. And if retail competition wasn't enough, loyal consumers are skeptical of the return, too.
Observers have voiced concerns that Popular Holdings, given its roots in the cut-and-dried textbook and assessment business, may not be able to recreate the Borders store vibe that customers first fell in love with. The Borders store in Wheelock Place was a destination in itself, by virtue of its street-level location in a busy section of Orchard Road which enjoyed heavy foot traffic. But it was its late operating hours and interesting book selection that made it popular with the after-work crowd and book lovers alike. Borders also offered ample seating nooks and some armchairs, which allowed customers to sit comfortably to browse and discover books before they bought.
Another concern is that high rentals in land-scarce Singapore make physical bookstores untenable, as evidenced by the closures of other bookstores such as homegrown art and design store Page One in 2011 and Popular Holdings' three Harris stores, as well as its Ion Orchard Prologue location. While some retail-preserving suggestions are more radical, The Straits Times suggests designating areas for booksellers and related activities that are in close proximity to universities and the like. Borders, after all, had its start in Ann Arbor, Mich., a college town.
But in today's retail space, high rents may be the least of Borders' problems. The newly-reborn brand will now also face stiff competition from Amazon, which recently announced that it will add free direct shipping to Singapore.
Do you think the new Borders has a chance? Leave us know what you think in the comments.
—Adeline Chong is based in Singapore. [Chart courtesy Today Online]