Like dog years, being able to sustain a retail business for, say, 10 years, would be considered a very good run. To last 27 years – as an independent with no venture capital behind it – is a formidable feat. But anyone who knows Lim Choon Hong will tell you that he is no stranger to evolving with the times.
When the founder and managing director of premium design store Xtra graduated with an architecture degree in 1986, Singapore was at the height of a recession. He had been unemployed for four months when he chanced upon a bookstore and spotted a book about Memphis, a design movement coming out of Italy with a focus on furniture design. It so happened that he had been offered a job as a brand manager for four brands, one of which was Memphis. He took that as a sign.
He says: “There were a lot of architects out there who didn’t have the opportunity to actually practise their discipline. So I took the furniture design route, and it just stuck.”
Lim founded Xtra three years later, in a pre-war house in Katong, before moving to its home in Park Mall in 1991. With the mall’s recent closure, it needed to move.
The 58-year-old says: “It’s a little ironic because we were already looking for a new space before Park Mall announced its closure.”
He wanted a place with a similar size and in mid-October – after 25 years – Xtra moved into its new 13,000 sq ft showroom at Marina Square – complete with high ceiling, a single-storey layout and a new freedom to innovate.
Designed by local design studio Produce and spearheaded by Pan Yi Cheng, the new showroom is an all-encompassing retail setting. Its main feature is a wooden laminate double-volume section, dedicated to a Herman Miller store-in-store.
Apart from its core names such as Tom Dixon, Magis and Tribu which have their own distinct areas within the showroom, Xtra has introduced a new “Apartment” section, which organises brands within a curated space to offer a more personalised touch.
Lim explains: “When we sub-divide the space into small parcels, we create ‘pods’ for each brand. It’s easier to showcase its individuality, instead of a more general presentation. At the same time everything is integrated into our facility.”
Another seamless integration is the in-house Kith café. At the Park Mall showroom, the café was more distinct, with a wall division. Now, it’s a space for customers and guests to have a meal in a setting that incorporates Xtra’s brand offerings. Lim’s initial doubts about moving into a mass market environment were unfounded, he admits. “It’s so much more accessible with a lot more parking, and the great thing is we have customers who’ve just wandered over to our store after shopping for clothes or getting lunch. That’s new for us.”
Marina Square #02-48
This article first appeared in The Business Times.